It was hardly a classic effort but with their 3-2 win over the Columbus Blue Jackets the Canadiens at least ended their four game losing streak and gave the Eastern Conference wild card race a shaking up.
The win elevated the Canadiens into the first wild card berth while the Blue Jacket loss, combined with a Pittsburgh win moved the Penguins to third in the Metro division and dropped Columbus to the second wild card spot two points behind the Canadiens At the same time, potential party crashers Carolina, Philadelphia and Buffalo all lost their games.
With twenty-two games remaining, consider this shuffle as a preview of what is likely to be happen on a near-nightly basis surrounding the Canadiens struggle for a playoff berth.
DOING IT THE HARD WAY
Puck-luck gave the Canadiens their 2-0 first period lead. Max Domi had a blocked pass come back to him for the first goal and Jesperi Kotkaniemi‘s hard missed shot came off the back boards right to Paul Byron for the second. And then the Canadiens sat back and let the Blue Jackets back into the game. It took Tomas Tatar‘s tie-breaking goal with just under seven minutes remaining to finally win the game. This game was much closer than it should have been. The Canadiens had thirteen high danger scoring chances to only five for the Blue Jackets. As we’ve seen recently, Canadiens high danger chances often don’t translate to goals.
I know Max Domi was named the game’s first star but the best Canadiens forward was Tomas Tatar. And it wasn’t even close. Tatar posted nine scoring chances including five that were considered highly dangerous. And he was in position to take Jordie Benn‘s brilliant through-the-crease pass for the game winning goal. Also part of his game highlight reel was a rush in which he used his speed to split the Columbus defence and force Sergei Bobrosky to make a big save.
With 22 games remaining, Domi became a 20-goal scorer for the first time in his career and equaled his career high points total with 52. The goal was the result of a lucky bounce, but give him credit for sticking with it as his blocked pass came back to him. What wasn’t needed was the fight with Columbus captain Nick Foligno which took him off the ice for five minutes just as the Canadiens were about to go on a power play with the game tied at 2-2.
With a baby on the way, Phillip Danault wasn’t available. Paul Byron was back after missing seven games. To make room on the roster Dale Weise was sent to Laval. That, combined with the four game losing streak gave Claude Julien an excuse to juggle his lines. The most surprising move was shifting fourth liner Nate Thompson to a top line between Tatar and Gallagher. It worked out pretty well. Thompson won 10 of 15 faceoffs and line’s Corsi number was 61%, second only to the Domi/Drouin/Shaw line’s 73%.
CLOSING THE DEAL
Not much Carey Price could do on the two goals he let in; both of them coming off 2-on-1 breaks. But he had to come up with some of his clutch magic in the seven minutes after Tatar scored to make it 3-2. A minute after Tatar scored he gloved a labeled shot from Zach Werenski. A minute after that it was Atkinson and Robinson in the goalmouth. And with ten seconds left he stopped Josh Anderson. It’s been five years since Price lost to the Blue Jackets. In the seven straight wins he has a .955 save% against them.
….Paul Byron came back after missing six games with that arm injury. He scored his 11th goal in his 37th game of an injury plagued season. If he can hold it together physically, replacing the unproductive Lehkonen with Byron should give Kotkaniemi an offensive boost.
….Kotkaniemi had two assists in the game, giving him 18 on the season. Only an anal-retentive would find importance in the fact that 18 assists equals Mario Tremblay and Petr Svododa for the most in Canadiens history for an 18 year old.
….Another blown opportunity to exit the doghouse for both Charles Hudon and Michael Peca. The best part of the fourth line was Lehkonen. Hudon and Peca were invisible. We can only assume Hudon will be gone by the trade deadline, allowing Weise to be recalled from Laval.
….Another shutout for the Canadiens power play. 0-for-3 with three shots on goal. No better or worse than it’s looked for most of the season. Over the last four games the power play is 0-for-11.
….Jonathan Drouin, who was marginally better in this game, was still on the ice for both Columbus goals and finished the night at minus-1. He is minus-7 his last four games. Drouin was particularly weak on the Blue jackets second goal.
….With twenty-two games remaining the Canadiens have 71 points which equals their total for the 2017-2018 season.
The Canadiens will host Philadelphia Thursday night. With the 5-2 loss to Tampa Tuesday, the Flyers have fallen eight points behind the Canadiens and six behind Columbus for the final wild card berth. After the Flyers the Canadiens start a four game road trip in Toronto Saturday night. The good news; the final three games of that road trip will be against New Jersey, Detroit and the Rangers, all non-playoff teams.