At this point, the only thing for which the Panthers could be playing at this stage of a lost season is the joy of the game itself. The Canadiens took away the Panthers fun in the first fifteen minutes.
While the Panthers are devoid of structure, the opposite is true for the Canadiens at this point. After brief stretch where the Canadiens seemed to lose their form, even without the emotional commitment of Jonathan Drouin, they have returned to what may be their best hockey of the season.
Two of the game’s first three goals were scored by Tomas Tatar. His second goal, caused Bob Boughner to remove starting goaltender James Reimer from the game. Tatar now has 26 goals and his three points in the game also give him a career high 57 points. The first of his two goals came off a brilliant pass out from behind the net from Andrew Shaw. His second was typical of what we also see from Brendan Gallagher and Shaw. Jamming the net looking for a rebound. He got it off a Shea Weber shot. It’s possible in the final five games that Tatar could get close to thirty goals.
Back in January, Paul Byron was handed a two-game suspension for leaving his feet to hit Florida defenceman Mackenzie Weegar. Byron was suspended three games and Weegar missed four games under the concussion protocol. In their first shift of the game, Weegar wrecked vengeance. You could argue that Byron shouldn’t have obliged Weegar considering the 4-inch and 30 lb disadvantage, but hockey is still hockey. Weegar is also a southpaw which Byron probably hadn’t counted upon. A left uppercut knocked Byron senseless. Byron didn’t return and the Canadiens now face the prospect of not having him for most of the rest of the regular season.
Everyone has an opinion about fighting in hockey, but it’s strange to me that in a league that is at the same time cracking down on concussion related offenses still allows players to punch each other in the head.
STATS DON’T TELL THE STORY
Artturi Lehkonen maybe having an unlucky season on the scoresheet but he still is one of Claude Julien‘s most dependable assets. Left to eleven forwards after Byron left the game, Julien chose Lehkonen to fill in on the Thompson/Weal line as well as his regular duties with Domi and Shaw. As a result of the double shifting his ice time was 17:57. Among the forwards, only Tatar logged more at 19:17. Lehkonen also scored the Canadiens fourth goal, was plus-3 in the game. He has 2 goals, 3 assists his last five games and, hard to believe as it might be, is just one point away from his career-best 28 points.
THE FINAL FIVE
The Canadiens have done what they had to do in preparation for their final five-game push. They still have their hold on the second wild card berth although, because Carolina lost in Washington Tuesday night, the Hurricanes are now just a point ahead of the Canadiens. Columbus remains two-points behind Montreal. Both the Hurricanes and Blue Jackets have six games left in their schedules. We all know about the difficult road the Canadiens have to take. Of their six remaining games, Columbus has to play the Canadiens, but also in Nashville and at home to Boston. Carolina faces Washington Thursday as well as Pittsburgh and Toronto on the road.
….Carey Price is now 8-0-1 in his last nine home games. In his eight starts since giving up eight goals in Anaheim, he has allowed 12 goals on 245 shots, a .947 save percentage and 1.33 goals against average. In that stretch he has given up more than two goals once (4 vs. Buffalo).
….Since the All-Star break, Price has appeared in 23 of 24 games and logged the most goaltending minutes in the NHL, ahead of Arizona’s Darcy Kuemper and Minnesota’s Devon Dubnyk. His record in that stretch is 13-8-2.
….With the game’s big early lead, Julien had an excuse to lighten Shea Weber‘s work load. Weber logged 18:27 and only 13:28 even strength. They were his fewest minutes since he was hit in the face with a puck and wound up in the hospital vs. Minnesota January 7th. For whatever reason, over the last five games Weber has averaged 21:40 minutes per game, far below his average of over 25-minutes.
….Brett Kulak got more ice time than Weber (19:07), almost all of it 5-on-5. He was very good with a goal, assist and a plus-four night. It got him the game’s second star.
….In the third period with the Canadiens playing shutdown hockey, there were no high danger scoring chances recorded 5-on-5 from either side (the Florida goal came on a power play).
….The Danault/Tatar/Gallagher line was charged with holding the red-hot Barkov/Huberdeau/Dadonov unit. The Florida line managed only three high danger scoring chances on the night while Danault’s unit produced 5 chances.
….Despite their wins against Florida, recognizing their difficult schedule ahead, sportsclubstats.com still lists the Canadiens with a 45.4% chance of securing a playoff berth.
The next, but not the last ‘game of the year’ in Columbus Thursday night. If the Canadiens could win it they would move four points ahead of the Blue Jackets. (At the same time Carolina will play at home against Washington) The Canadiens move on to play at Winnipeg Saturday before entering the final week with two out of three home games.
Next Sunday (March 31st) both Columbus and Carolina will finally pick up the games-in-hand they hold over the Canadiens. While the Canadiens are idle the Blue Jackets will play at Buffalo and the Hurricanes at Pittsburgh. Both games are the second half of a back-to-back set. After that, each of the three contenders will have three games left on their schedules.