Montreal Canadiens goaltender Al Montoya couldn’t stop them all in what ended up being a 4-3 shootout loss to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday, but his performance gave the team a point it probably didn’t deserve in the standings.
With Canadiens starter Carey Price battling a severe case of the flu and missing the team’s first two games of the season, Montoya was forced to deliver.
He made 30 saves in the opening 4-1 win over the Buffalo Sabres Thursday and made another 35 in the loss to the Senators who improved to 2-0 this season.
But it wasn’t just about the amount of saves Montoya made; it was about the timing of them giving the Canadiens a chance at wins in both games.
Before the Canadiens opened their season in Buffalo, general manager Marc Bergevin said on local radio that coaching greats Toe Blake and Scotty Bowman wouldn’t have been capable of winning games with the type of sub-par goaltending the team received in Price’s 70-game absence last season.
Mike Condon, who was waived by the Canadiens last Monday, made 55 appearances last season. He went 21-25-6 while third-stringer Ben Scrivens went 5-8. Both goalies fell woefully short of the league average in save percentage, with Condon at .903 and Scrivens at .906.
“You have to know the reason why you’re losing,” said Bergevin. “Then you try to fix it and you move forward.”
He signed Montoya to a one-year, $950,000 contract on July 1 after the Cuban-born netminder went 12-7-3 and posted a .919 save percentage as Roberto Luongo’s auxiliary with the Florida Panthers last season.
The move is already paying dividends for Montreal.
On Thursday, with the Canadiens up by a goal in the dying minutes of the first period, Montoya stood tall on Buffalo’s Evander Kane, shutting down a breakaway chance with the extension of his blocker. Had Kane beaten him, it would’ve completely changed the complexion of the game. Instead the save kept momentum on Montreal’s side.
On Saturday, with the Canadiens behind the eight ball out of the gate in the first period, there was Montoya again, making a key save at a key moment on Ottawa’s Mike Hoffman, stopping him from point-blank range just eight seconds after Ryan Dzingel made it 1-0 for the Senators.
In the second period, with Ottawa leading 2-0, Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk took a hooking penalty which forced his team to defend a 4-on-3 power play.
The Senators set up shop in Montreal’s end and had full control of play when Hoffman got an open look at a one-timer from the point. Montoya swished across his crease and coolly denied the high-quality scoring opportunity.
The shot from Hoffman was Ottawa’s 22nd of the night, compared to seven for Montreal after 30 minutes of play.
“The first part of the game, our execution wasn’t there,” said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien afterwards. “They took away our time and space, and I felt we weren’t skating the way we can skate.”
But Montoya’s save on Hoffman gave the Canadiens life.
Defenceman Jeff Petry got Montreal on the board with a power-play marker with less than five minutes remaining in the second period. Forward Artturi Lehkonen scored the first goal of his NHL career to tie the game at 2-2 in the third period. And Petry added another to make it 3-2 Canadiens with 11 minutes left.
Montreal was oh-so-close to stealing the game away before Ottawa’s Tom Pyatt finished a beautiful three-way passing play into the top shelf of Montoya’s net with 2:33 to go in the third period.
Seconds before Ottawa tied the game, Montoya came up with a huge save on Senators forward Zack Smith and robbed centre Derick Brassard on the rebound. In overtime, he made three more timely ones to keep the Canadiens alive.
It took two perfect shots—one from forward Kyle Turris and the other from Senators captain Erik Karlsson—to beat Montoya in the shootout, but he had already delivered what was expected of him in relief of Price.
From the shadow of off-season moves that brought superstar defenceman Shea Weber, super pest Andrew Shaw and super talent Alexander Radulov to Montreal, Montoya has managed to steal away some attention with his early-season heroics.
If Price can’t recover on time, Montoya will have to keep the ball rolling when the Canadiens welcome the Pittsburgh Penguins to the Bell Centre for their home-opener this Tuesday.