PITTSBURGH — The puck was bouncing behind Phillip Danault as he got bumped and nearly knocked to the ice by John Marino. In desperation, Danault dragged the puck back with one hand on his stick and then proceeded to beat Marino and Brandon Tanev to give Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher a 2-on-0 advantage in front of Pittsburgh Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry.
Tatar flubbed his shot and beat Jarry with it. It was the first goal Jarry had allowed in 177:15 and it broke a shutout streak that now stands as the longest in franchise history.
It was an ugly goal. But the play Danault made to set it up typified how the Montreal Canadiens did all the little things that allowed them to find a way to win.
This was a big victory.
No, check that. This was a massive win against a Penguins team that was 12-3-2 at home and six points up in the Eastern Conference wild-card race coming into Tuesday’s game.
The Canadiens, losers of eight in a row and nine of their last 11 prior to their 4-1 win in Pittsburgh, had gone through a vicious cycle of finding ways to lose. They gave up such high quality chances it was a miracle they picked up any points at all during their skid.
They also surrendered multi-goal leads, took ill-timed penalties, and, though there wasn’t much Carey Price — or Keith Kinkaid to a lesser extent — could do about it, neither goaltender could find a way to bail out the Canadiens.
But the tide started to turn in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Philadelphia Flyers on Nov. 30. It slowly gathered behind the Canadiens in a hard-fought 3-1 defeat to the Boston Bruins a night later, and it began to carry them over in a 4-2 win over the New York Islanders on Dec. 3.
The Canadiens had a chance to beat the red-hot Colorado Avalanche last Thursday, but they fell just short in a 3-2 loss. Then they went to New York and played a near-perfect game for a 2-1 win over the Rangers.
And Tuesday in Pittsburgh, after Danault made a bad pass to Ben Chiarot and the puck got turned over to lethal centre Evgeni Malkin, who passed it up to Bryan Rust for a 2-on-1 that Jake Guentzel finished for a 1-0 Penguins lead, the Canadiens buckled down and took over the game.
Danault’s desperate play sent the snowball downhill for them.
“If I don’t make that play, it’s a 4-on-1 the other way,” he said. “I won my battle. That third effort is huge. That’s the way we’re going to win. We work hard, and it’s the only way we can win.”
It takes Joel Armia chipping the puck by Kris Letang and powering his way to the net to give the Canadiens a 2-1 lead just under four minutes after the Tatar goal.
It takes 34-year-old Shea Weber, the Canadiens’ best defensive player, storming his way down the ice and flying by the 22-year-old Marino to score what has to be the first wraparound goal of his career.
Weber reached the benchmark while skating in his 31st game.
— NHL Public Relations (@PR_NHL) December 11, 2019
I asked the Montreal captain if that was the case and he said it was his first since he “played NHL ’95, probably.”
Canadiens coach Claude Julien called it one of the most important plays of the game.
His team made many more big ones throughout. They made little ones, too, registering 67 hits and 13 blocked shots.
In other words, the Canadiens outwilled the Penguins.
“I just think our commitment to compete, our urgency to be hard on pucks … There was a lot of the game played in the battle areas. It was in the trenches and you’ve got to get your nose over pucks, you’ve got to be willing to fight and protect pucks and I didn’t think we won enough of those,” said Penguins coach Mike Sullivan.
The Canadiens lost some in the first period, but they bounced back hard in the second and the snowball gained momentum right up until Brendan Gallagher iced the game with an empty-net goal at 18:21 of the third period.
It was a full-team effort. Proof was in a sequence that saw 22-year-old rookie Otto Leskinen, and 20-year-old rookies Cale Fleury and Nick Suzuki break up quality scoring chances in succession within a couple minutes of play in the third period.
Just prior to that, Malkin’s line with Rust and Guentzel had the Canadiens hemmed in, but no real quality chances came of it.
“Malkin does a really good job of controlling the puck down low himself,” said Price. “He’s really good at holding the puck, cycling it, and I thought we did a really good job of containing everything and keeping it to the wall. I thought we did a great job of that. It’s not easy to contain a guy like that.”
But it’s what you need to do to beat Pittsburgh — especially with Sidney Crosby sidelined until the end of the month after undergoing surgery to repair a sports-hernia injury.
Price played his part, too, making 33 saves.
“When Carey is solid, and making big saves, and calm, and making things look easy, it certainly helps the confidence of anybody else in front of him,” said Julien.
It’s a big part of the recipe, no doubt.
Suddenly Price looks sharp and the Canadiens are finding ways to win. If they can keep it rolling against the Ottawa Senators (Wednesday) and the Detroit Red Wings (Saturday) before heading on the longest road-trip of their season, it will go a long way toward canceling out all that time they spent finding ways to lose.