It’s mid-December, and yet it’s not too early to be focused on the Eastern Conference standings.
Because on Tuesday, the Toronto Maple Leafs and Tampa Bay Lightning both won and pushed the Montreal Canadiens to sixth place in the Atlantic Division before the boys in bleu, blanc et rouge even took to the ice in Vancouver. Those outcomes turned this first of seven-straight contests for the Canadiens on the road into one of the most important games of the season.
By beating the Canucks 3-1, Montreal leapt over the Maple Leafs, the Lightning and the idle Florida Panthers to recapture third place in the division. The Canadiens also pulled to within one point of the second-place Buffalo Sabres, who lost in regulation to Toronto, and they own a game in-hand on the Sabres.
It was a win that also allowed Montreal to keep pace in the wild-card race, putting them three points behind the Philadelphia Flyers.
The Canadiens had left home with the bitter taste of a loss to the last-place Detroit Red Wings lingering. Coach Claude Julien had outlined the pressure they were facing to start off this road trip on the right foot, saying that he expected teams like Toronto and Tampa to begin climbing the ranks.
“I guess that’s the pressure that every team in this league has to go through now,” Julien said on Saturday. “It is what it is; there’s no such thing anymore as, ‘Let’s just play 82 games here and we’ll be fine.’ Every night’s a big night and every win’s a big win, so we have to look at it that way and make sure we’re ready to bounce back (on Tuesday) in Vancouver.”
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
The Canadiens, who came into the game with the eighth-most goals in the NHL at 5-on-5, relied on a different recipe to win this one.
They unexpectedly won the special-teams battle. Adam Gaudette may have opened the scoring with a power-play goal, but the Canadiens, who ranked 27th on the penalty kill prior to the game, shut down the fourth-best power play in the league on three separate occasions.
At the other end of the ice, Montreal scored two power play goals within 1:34 of the third period and never looked back.
Phillip Danault made a remarkable play from his knees to set up Tomas Tatar with the first one, and Shea Weber scored the second one for the 214th goal of his career, which allowed him to pass Brad Park and take over sole possession of 18th place on the all-time list of goals scored by an NHL defenceman.
The goals from Tatar and Weber were scored on the only two power plays the Canadiens were awarded in the game, which brought their percentage up from 20 per cent to 21.7 per cent. That puts them in 10th in the NHL in the category, which is a massive improvement from where they were a season ago, when they operated at 13.2 per cent and finished 30th.
• With a secondary assist on Nick Cousins’ second-period goal that tied the game at 1-1, Joel Armia hit the 100-point plateau in his 269th NHL game. He added another assist on Weber’s goal, giving him 20 points in 32 games this season.
Armia would have been up to 21 points had his second-period goal not been called back on a coach’s challenge for goaltender interference.
• The play by Danault was his 26th point of the season. He’s on pace for 62 points, which would shatter his previous career-high (set last season) by nine points.
Danault finished seventh in votes for the Selke Trophy last season. If he keeps dominating at both ends of the ice, he’s going to make a strong case to be considered among the three finalists for the award this season.
• Canadiens goaltender Carey Price came back to his home province with a lifetime 12-2-2 record and a .936 save percentage in Vancouver. He stood on his head in this game, making 38 saves for his 13th win of the season.
It marked the fifth-straight game in which Price had allowed two goals or less. After watching him give up at least three goals in seven of his 11 November starts, it’s fair to say what he’s done so far in December has helped the Canadiens remain in the thick of the playoff race.
The Canadiens travel to Calgary, where they’ll play the 18-14-4 Flames on Thursday.