The Canadiens had put together a tremendous effort through the first 50 minutes of the game. They outworked the Flames in all three zones, outshot them by a wide margin, out-chanced them handily, and somehow fell asleep at the wheel for an instant and nearly cost themselves at least a point in the standings.
Micheal Ferland potted a rebound off Michael Frolik’s shot with 10:18 remaining in the third period to get the Flames into the game. Teammate Matthew Tkachuk narrowed the gap on the power play, making the score 3-2 Canadiens with 1:53 to go.
And the game was close to being tied on two occasions before time expired and the Montreal side could exhale.
What a relief it must’ve been for them. The Canadiens, idle on Wednesday and Thursday, had fallen seven points behind the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division and six points behind the New York Islanders, who sit in the second wild-card spot in the Eastern Conference. To say Friday’s game was a must-win, ahead of Saturday’s matchup against an Edmonton Oilers team that’s won three straight, would be underselling it.
Let’s take a closer look at how Montreal got it done.
Pacioretty no-goal could’ve hurt but didn’t
One of the first plays of the night could’ve turned this into a completely different game.
Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty got sprung on a one-on-one, he faked a snap shot and freezed the Flames defenceman in front of him before pivoting to his backhand and slipping the puck through goaltender Mike Smith’s legs.
It would’ve been Pacioretty second goal in his last 17 games and his first in the month of December. Instead it was challenged by Flames coach Glen Gulutzan and revoked by the officials after it was deemed on review that Pacioretty’s linemate, Paul Byron, had lifted his skate off the ice coming over the blue line and put himself offside.
Bounces like these have killed the Canadiens in other games this season, but it was clear that wasn’t going to happen when Pacioretty and Byron each notched quality scoring chances on the very next shift.
Byron Froese tipped a puck in 10:45 into the first period to put Montreal on the board. They got another from Nicolas Deslauriers in the second period and recorded the first 10 shots of the third before the tide turned a bit for the Flames.
Things were looking dicey for Montreal when Pacioretty iced a puck going for an empty net while Smith was pulled and the Flames were trailing by just one in the dying minutes. But that play ultimately didn’t cost the Canadiens, and neither did Pacioretty’s revoked goal.
Fourth line comes up clutch again
The Canadiens’ line of Daniel Carr, Froese and Deslauriers accounted for two of Montreal’s three goals on the night. Since being put together nine games ago, they’ve combined for 23 points.
Canadiens coach Claude Julien was desperate for a fourth line that could chip in after going 25 games without more than a single goal from that part of the lineup. It’s pretty clear he’s found one.
Enter Artturi Lehkonen
The feisty Finn had missed 16 games with a lower-body injury and was cleared late on Friday to rejoin the Canadiens lineup.
It was a move that was heavily criticized by the Canadiens’ Twitterazzi before the game, but it proved to be justified. It led to Gallagher’s team-leading 14th goal of the season—his first in six games—and gave the Canadiens a strong two-way presence on a line that is mostly used to shut down the opposition’s best forwards.
In addition to setting up Gallagher’s goal, Lehkonen had two shots on net, finished plus-1 and made a couple of big plays in the final minute to help the Canadiens stave off a tying goal.
Taking care of business without Shea Weber
Montreal’s No. 1 defenceman was sent home from the West Coast earlier this week to get evaluated by team doctors for a foot injury that had reportedly been plaguing him since Montreal’s season-opening 3-2 win over the Buffalo Sabres.
No one would’ve been surprised to see the Canadiens crumble in his absence.
They’ve since won both games they’ve played without Weber and improved to 6-2-1 without him this season.
Some things defy logic. This is one of them.
And if the Canadiens win in Edmonton Saturday
That would make them 4-1-0 over a five-game stretch that started with a 2-1 win over the New Jersey Devils last Thursday.
It was a segment Canadiens forward Phillip Danault had said they were approaching as one that would "separate the playoff teams from the non-playoff teams."
Even if the Canadiens pull off a Christmas miracle and take two points away from a hot Oilers team, it won’t put them in a playoff spot, it will only serve to keep them in the race.
But we know where they’d be if more of these games had turned out like the clunker they turned in against the Ottawa Senators in the NHL 100 Classic last Saturday.