The Canadiens 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers Friday night was their 11th win in 15 December games, a remarkable turnaround for a team that lost it’s last five November games and appeared as the month began to be fulfilling pre-season predictions of another losing season.
Their 20th win of the season moved the Canadiens ahead of the Bruins into the Eastern Conference’s first wild card berth. They are only two points behind third place Buffalo in the Atlantic Division.
Three times in his 38 games with the Canadiens, Tomas Tatar has recorded multi-goal games. The two he produced against Florida are what often are described as “goal scorer’s goals”. His first was a quick backhand release of a turnover forced by Brendan Gallagher behind the net. The second was a one-timer off a Jonathan Drouin cross-ice pass that seemed to partly handcuff him.
After appearing to slump earlier in the month, Tatar has come back on this road trip with four points in his last two games.
When he acquired him in the Pacioretty deal Marc Bergevin made Vegas eat 500 thousand dollars in each of the remaining three years of his 21 million dollar contract. On pace for a 30-goal season, Tatar is becoming a steal on the level of the Paul Byron waiver claim.
We’re not going to see Carey Price until the New Year meaning it’s up to Antti Niemi to close out the six game road trip. Last time we saw Niemi he was giving up seven goals at Minnesota and the last time he won a game was November 10th against Vegas at the Bell Centre. Against Florida he was good. One of the three goals he gave up was pure bad luck. The other two on screen shots.
Florida entered the game with the third highest shots-on-goal average in the league at 34.5 per game. The Canadiens held them to 26 on their own ice. This was team road defence at it’s best. Canadiens forwards throttled the Florida’s transition game in the neutral zone. Because the forwards were skating, the defence was allowed to maintain it’s gap control at their own line. Through the final two periods Florida was limited to only two high-danger scoring chances.
At the other end, Montreal forechecking produced two of the four goals including the game-winner thanks to Andrew Shaw‘s work getting the puck out to Artturi Lehkonen.
There were times in the game that I thought Shea Weber seemed slow and perhaps hitting the wall in the 14th game of his comeback after a year on the DL. But he was named third star of the game for a reason. Whatever his issues, he and partner Victor Mete played a large part in the shutdown effort against the Barkov/Huberdeau/Dadonov line. Weber logged another 27:16 ice time, was plus-3 and assisted the Canadiens second goal.
This was a total team win. The Barkov line came into the game as one of the hottest in the league. Despite having last change, for some reason the Florida coaching staff allowed Claude Julien to put the Danault/Gallagher/Tatar line out against them all night long. Thanks to their relentless forecheck and play in the neutral zone Barkov’s line was limited to a total of two shots on goal, both of them coming in the game’s final two minutes.
THE DREADED MAN-ADVANTAGE
Tatar‘s second goal came just after a five-on-three power play had come to an end. It was the Canadiens third power play goal in the last four games a sign that the league’s worst PP is starting to come out of it’s funk. There are still stretches when it seems static and hesitant but at least the trend is moving in the right direction
….Another assist for Jeff Petry his 28th point in 38 games; seventh among the league’s defencemen. He is averaging 0.74 points per game, a career high. He logged another solid 23:36, second only to Weber.
….Jesperi Kotkaniemi‘s night included no shots on goal on four attempts. He hit goalposts twice.
….Tatar and Jonathan Drouin led the Canadiens with four shots on goal. Obviously Tatar had a good night. Drouin’s performance was uneven but included the empty net goal and the assist on the power play goal.
….Another balanced offensive game. All four lines were credited with goals.
…..The Canadiens were 51% in the faceoff circle. Max Domi won 9 of 17 (53%); Danault 8 of 16 (50%).
Tampa Bay Saturday night for the second of back-to-back games. Antti Niemi will start again. Tampa is 11-1-0 this month. While the Canadiens are playing Tampa, the Sabres and Bruins, the two teams close to them in the Eastern Conference,will be playing each other at Buffalo.
After the Lightning, the Canadiens complete the six game road trip in Dallas New Year’s Eve. At 3-1-0 they are guaranteed of at least a .500 record in their longest road trip of the season.