Candiens return after 10 days with crucial win over Edmonton
By David Hawkins
Tatar (90) – Danault (24) – Gallagher (11)
Drouin (92) – Suzuki (14) – Anderson (17)
Byron (41) – Kotkaniemi (15) – Lehkonen (62)
Frolik (67) – Evans (71) – Perry (94)
Edmundson (44) – Weber (6)
Kulak (77) – Petry (26)
Romanov (27) – Mete (53)
After a long week of absence, Montreal finally returned to action Tuesday night at the Bell Centre against league leading points scorer Conor McDavid (63 points in 37 games – yikes!) and his Edmonton Oilers (22-13-1). Jesperi Kotkaniemi returned to the lineup following his short battle with COVID but Joel Armia remained out. Last night was the start of a crucial point in the Canadiens shortened season as, with the 4 games postponed due to COVID protocols last week, the amendments to the schedule now meant that they would be playing four games a week for the next four weeks. After a dramatic shootout win against Vancouver last time out, it was imperative the Habs picked up two more points against the team they are fighting directly against for a playoff spot.
The Canadiens started off sharply, with the third line breaking 3 on 2 after the Oilers got caught with all 3 of their forwards deep in the offensive end. Kotkaniemi passed the puck off to the speedy Byron who returned the favour for Kotkaniemi to snap the shot home five hole for his 5th of the season, giving the Habs a lead after 18 seconds. Following a lengthy video review for offside after a coach’s challenge by Dave Tippett, the goal was given and Les Canadiens could breath a sigh of relief. As the coach’s challenge failed, the Oilers had to take a bench minor penalty for delay of game meaning Montreal went the powerplay. It didn’t take long for the Habs to get setup in their new look powerplay under assistant coach Alex Burrows, with Shea Webber ringing the crossbar with a trademark bomb.
The Canadians were moving the puck well early round a sluggish Oilers defence and creating several high quality scoring chances, something which did not bode well for the rest of the game for a goaltender in Koskinen who has posted a 3.15 goals against and a measly .902 save percentage for Edmonton in 20 games this season. Ducharme’s men continued their quick start after Edmundson’s shot rebounded to two unchallenged Habs at the side of the net, with Lehkonen eventually poking the puck in for his first 5 on 5 goal of the season. It did not look as if the Habs were the team 10 days out of practice. The Oilers got their first big chance of the game as Kyle Turris came out the box to pick up a loose puck and snapped a wrist shot of the post, a warning to Carey Price. This did not stop Montreal however, who continued to create odd man rushes with their speedy transition leading to more chances. Eventually, with 4:01 left in the first, they got the third after a quick face off win got the puck back to Shea Weber who’s quick snapshot rebounded off the post for Brendan Gallagher to put into an empty net; a classic Gallagher goal. The writing looked very much on the wall.
Early in the second little seemed to have improved for Edmonton, who were struggling to create anything with a disciplined Habs defence, being kept to the boards. Unsurprisingly, it was Montreal who had the first good scoring chance of the period when they caught Edmonton making a change, creating a 3 on 1 in which Corey Perry had a hard wrist shot saved by the stick of Koskinen. Edmonton managed to ring the post of Carey Price again off a Tyson Barrie shot on the powerplay, but were still not creating much 5 on 5, strange for a team second in the league in goals for. They thought they had a goal back with just over six minutes left in the second after the puck found its way on the stick of the mercurial McDavid whose bullet shot found the top shelf. However, unlike the Canadiens earlier in the game, the Oilers entered the zone offside and so the goal was disallowed.
Montreal continued to push late in the second looking to kill the game off. With 2 minutes left, a shot by Edmundson was rebounded into the corner by Koskinen, but Gallagher was quick to poke the puck away not allowing the Oilers out. Danault quickly fed a pass cross ice to Tatar who one timed the puck into the net, compiling the Oilers’ misery and surely securing the two points for the Canadiens with a period to go.
However, even with a four goal lead the Habs could not afford to be complacent. Carey Price has not been the same goalie this season that allowed him to sweep up 4 awards at the 2015 NHL awards ceremony. This season has seen him post 2.59 goals against and a .906 save percentage, far from the high standard he set 6 years ago. So that, coupled with the fact McDavid was riding an 11-game point streak coming into this game, meant Montreal had to be focussed coming into the third to secure a crucial win.
And that’s exactly what they were. Montreal controlled the play in all three zones, not allowing Edmonton any real offensive zone time 5 on 5. They only really had any chances on the powerplay and the few they did manage to create 5 on 5 came off the rush. The crucial point was shutting down the Oilers most potent offensive threat in McDavid; not giving him the open ice to stretch his legs and create openings. In the end, Edmonton managed just 16 shots on Carey Price, who earned his first career shutout against the Oilers and his 49th overall.
Montreal played the perfect game in both directions. They limited the Oilers to low quality scoring chances in the defensive zone and broke with speed and numbers creating a number of high-quality scoring chances off the rush. They were also fantastic at controlling the play in Edmonton’s zone and moving the puck with purpose. Last night’s win feels all the more sweet considering Montreal were missing three key players in top goal scorer Tyler Toffoli, Joel Armia and defensemen Ben Chairot. Add to this the recently acquired veteran centreman Eric Stall and Montreal have 4 big players to come back into the line-up and improve things further during a busy schedule. Stall is another seasoned NHL veteran that Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin has added to the team this season, giving the Habs much needed experience if they look to have a deep run in the playoffs. Stall could also contribute offensively, after all it was only 4 seasons ago that he scored 42 goals for Minnesota. Bergevin also has the option of calling up 20 year old rookie Caul Colefield to bolster the Habs offensive threat even more, as he recently signed his entry level contract and will join up with Montreal’s AHL team Laval. Caufield had 30 goals and 52 points in 31 games for Wisconsin this season, leading the NCAA. If Caufield was to be called up for the remainder of this season and hopefully, the playoffs, then he would burn a year of his 3 year entry level deal. However, if his form in the AHL is anywhere close to what it was in the NCAA then this will be worth it. It’s all smiles for Le Bleu-Blanc-Rouge at the moment going into the most important part of the season.