The Panthers came into the game a desperate hockey team after losing their last six games. They were playing a Canadiens team that had won an emotional game in Boston the night before and understandably had trouble finding their legs in the first period. They righted things somewhat in the second period to get a 3-1 lead.. He had already made 31 saves, a full goaltending night in most games, but in the third period fatigue started to set in and Niemi really had to go to work.
He was asked to make 21 of his 52 saves in the third including twelve Florida scoring chances, eight of them rated highly dangerous. He made glittering saves on Bjugstad twice, Barkov, Borgstrom and Hoffman to name five of them. And while he was doing all this, the Canadiens added their fourth and fifth goals.
Usually, a Niemi game win or lose includes frequent scrambling to deal with his rebounds. Second chances at the puck were remarkably rare in this game.
It was Niemi’s third straight win including that 45 save overtime victory over Dallas New Year’s Eve. In the three starts he’s allowed five goals and has a save percentage of .955. And his season record is now 8-4-1.
Remember, only a month ago when the cry was out for a qualified Canadiens backup goaltender.
Max Domi was emotionally invested on every level. He was at the centre of a few in-game skirmishes most notably with Mike Matheson in the first period and Evgeni Dadonov in the third. He also won 73% of his faceoffs and appeared to have ended a goal scoring drought that extended back to December 9th when he poked in a rebound midway through the third period; that is until the replay officials reviewed it and found Artturi Lehkonen had interfered with the goaltender. Four minutes later there was no doubt and the seventeen game streak was over. There are times when Domi probably should rein it in a bit, but playing this way seems to make his game tick.
Shea Weber‘s power play blast got the Canadiens started on their comeback. Another one of his slapshots set up their second and winning goal after Phillip Danault collected it off the back boards and put it in the net. With the two points Weber now has seven goals and fourteen points in his twenty-four games since the return November 27th. In those twenty-four games the Canadiens are 15-9-0. Everyone is better with Weber in the lineup, especially the goaltenders who’s confidence level has grown exponentially. Niemi for instance is 4-2-0 since Weber’s return.
In the second period Jesperi Kotkaniemi elected to try a toe drag instead of shoot in front of the Florida goal and lost control of the puck. In the third period he broke down the left side, burst past Mike Matheson and then pulled another toe drag around James Reimer to score and picture perfect goal. It was just his sixth goal of the season, but it was a sure sign of things to come.
The Canadiens have 57 points which ties them with Boston and puts them one point behind Toronto. Let’s not get too excited yet. This was the Canadiens 48th game, most games-played in the Eastern Conference. Toronto has three games in hand and the Bruins hold two. And theIslanders, who are a single point behind the Canadiens in the second wild card spot also hold three games in hand. Lots of hard work remaining before the season ends.
ALSO WORTH MENTIONING
….With his empty net goal, Brendan Gallagher has four goals in the five games since he ended an eight game drought. He now has 19.
….Niemi‘s 52 saves was a personal best, beating the 48 in a 3-2 overtime loss March 3, 2017. Fifty-two saves also ties for the most by a goaltender this season with Minnesota’s Devan Dubnyk October 13th vs. Carolina.
….The Weber power play goal ended a streak of 28 without a goal on home ice.
….Paul Byron was handed a two-minute minor for charging against MacKenzie Weegar early in the second period. Byron left his feet in delivering the check and a five minute major was warranted. The league will probably review it.
….Byron led the Canadiens with 4 shots on goal. Oddly, Jeff Petry was one of only two members of the Canadiens not to record a shot. The other was Nicolas Deslauriers. Deslauriers led with five hits.
….The Canadiens won 64% of the faceoffs against the Panthers. Phillip Danault won 65%; Domi 73% and Kotkaniemi won 8 of 10 for 80%.
….Florida carried 60.34% of the play in the game including 66.67% of the third period.
….This was the first time the Canadiens swept a back-to-back sequence in eight occasions so far this season.
Another set of back to back games at Columbus on Friday and home against to Philadelphia on Saturday which completes a four games in six nights stretch and will wrap up a brutal schedule of eleven games in 17 days. After three days off they’ll finish their pre-All Star break schedule with a game against Arizona next Wednesday at the Bell Centre.