WINNIPEG — With just under a minute remaining in the biggest game of the year for the Montreal Canadiens, Jonathan Drouin, Jordan Weal and Joel Armia were all on the ice to protect a one-goal lead over the Winnipeg Jets.
It said a lot about the performance they offered in Winnipeg. A performance to keep Montreal’s season going. A performance that was somewhat unexpected given how things had gone for two pivotal members of the line of late.
Drouin came into the game with points in just two of his last 22 and Armia had just one goal in his last 13 after scoring a hat trick against the New York Rangers in a 4-2 win for Montreal. Confidence had sagged with Jesperi Kotkaniemi between them, but it returned in a big way with Weal stepping in.
There was the power-play goal Armia scored with 2:55 remaining in a first period the Canadiens absolutely dominated, a play that started with Weal winning a faceoff cleanly. One that became dangerous as Drouin collected the puck at the point and danced along the blue line with it before giving it back to Weal on the half-wall.
From there, Weal sent it to Phillip Danault, and Armia received the one-touch pass in the slot before burying it.
“That was big for the confidence,” said Drouin.
Nothing was bigger than what happened with just over 20 seconds remaining in the game, with the Jets scrambling with six players in Montreal’s end while Winnipeg goaltender Connor Hellebuyck looked on from the bench.
Drouin cut off the play, skated his way into open ice, and flipped the puck through the neutral zone for Andrew Shaw to retrieve it after Armia made his way off the ice.
Shaw won his battle, left the puck for Weal, and as the Great Bob Cole put it on the Hockey Night in Canada broadcast — his last-ever in Winnipeg — “Weal sealed the deal.”
A 3-1 win for the Canadiens. A wire-to-wire beat down of the Central Division-leading Jets, achieved in a building where the home team has put up the NHL’s fourth-best record. How it came together, on the heels of a devastating loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday, can do wonders for the team’s confidence.
“I think we played a good 60-minute game,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “I thought right from the get-go we were prepared to make good solid passes, good decisions, our defensive game was really good, our Ds were doing a good job of really having a tight gap and forcing them not to come in easily on the rush. I thought we forced them to dump a lot of pucks. Our goaltender is like a third defenceman, I thought he did a great job of moving the pucks tonight. And when it was time to move the puck, again our D did a great job.
“I just thought through 60 minutes there wasn’t any glaring mistakes. There’s always mistakes in a game, but small ones you can correct. And that’s what we saw tonight.”
What we saw was a Montreal team engaged from puck drop to final whistle. They out-shot Winnipeg 44-24, they out-chanced them by as wide a margin, they controlled the middle of the ice, and they feasted on their opportunities in transition.
And it was Drouin, Weal and Armia who set the tone — cutting off the neutral zone, activating the cycle in the offensive zone and taking care of their own end. They were deployed as the team’s second line at 5-on-5 and they controlled 57 per cent of the shot attempts over their shifts.
“I think we didn’t cheat the game,” said Drouin. “We didn’t force anything, we just tried to play it simple. I thought we got results from it.”
It’s why they were on the ice to see the win through. That and the fact that Montreal’s fourth line hadn’t touched the ice after allowing a goal to Winnipeg’s Mathieu Perreault with just under nine minutes left in the third period.
“I needed a fresh line out there because we played the last nine minutes with three lines and I felt confident they could do the job,” said Julien. “Sometimes you’ve got to trust [the players] and trust your instinct and trust the people that have done the job since the start.”
Julien trusted his instinct and scratched Kotkaniemi after the 18-year-old appeared out of his depth in the loss to Columbus. He trusted it and promoted Weal. He trusted it to cut down on his fourth line’s ice time after they had played a largely effective game but slipped on what ended up being a costly shift.
And that final decision Julien made was a big one.
“It’s huge,” Drouin said. “It’s been a rough couple of games and couple of weeks for me and I thought we had a good game as a line. For Claude to put me out there helps my confidence. I just wanted to make sure I made the right play. It worked out.”
Granted, the Canadiens didn’t gain any ground on the Blue Jackets, who took care of their business with a win over the Nashville Predators to stay ahead in the standings on a games-played tiebreaker (the Blue Jackets are in the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Canadiens in points and owning a game in hand). Granted, they weren’t able to close the gap on the Carolina Hurricanes, who beat the Philadelphia Flyers to remain one point ahead of Columbus and Montreal in the first wild-card position.
But they kept themselves in the hunt with a resilient win in hostile territory.
Jeff Petry notched a new career high in goals when he scored the winner with 37 seconds left in the second period. It was his 13th of the season. Max Domi assisted on it to become the first Canadiens player to hit the 70-point plateau in a season since Tomas Plekanec did it in 2010. Those were huge contributions.
But the night belonged to Drouin, Weal and the former Jet, Armia. A line that needed to come through in the most pivotal game of the season.