It was a day that didn’t start particularly well for the Montreal Canadiens, but one that ended for them on a high note.
On Friday morning, Canadiens coach Claude Julien gave an update on starting goaltender Carey Price’s lower-body injury, telling reporters at the team’s morning skate in Florida that Price had been dealing with an “irritation” for several weeks.
“It was examined thoroughly and it seemed as though he could get through it,” Julien said. “We thought four days off would’ve done him some good, but yesterday (practice) was very difficult for him. So, at the moment, all we can say is that he continues to be examined. He’s still day-to-day, but we don’t know (how long he could be out or how serious it is) until we get the information from the doctors.”
It was an update that left many possibilities on the table. Not one Canadiens fans were hoping for ahead of a game against a divisional rival that sat seven points back with two games in hand.
This was going to be a tall task for backup Antti Niemi, regardless. Possibly the first of many as the Canadiens await news on Price and charge forth into the second half of their season.
Here are some takeaways on how he—and his teammates—handled it, in what turned out to be a 5-3 win over the Florida Panthers.
Niemi finds his game just in the nick of time
The Finnish netminder came into Friday’s game with a 4-3-1 record on the season, which was somewhat remarkable given his 4.14 goals-against average and his .876 save percentage.
He didn’t exactly inspire much confidence after the Canadiens built a 2-0 lead in the first 2:51 of the first period.
It was Henrik Borgstrom who beat Niemi with Florida’s third shot of the game, and then Denis Malgin tied things up on Florida’s fifth shot.
Granted, the goals came off terrible bounces for Montreal’s Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Paul Byron, but the shots provided opportunities for Niemi to show his team he was there to stand in for the injured Price. He whiffed on them.
But much like he has throughout his career, Niemi rebounded exceptionally well.
Saves on Aaron Ekblad and Jared McCann, while the Panthers enjoyed an early power-play opportunity in the second period, kept the game tied at 2-2. Another on Mike Hoffman, who leads Florida with eight power-play goals this season, was huge for Niemi.
With just over 13 minutes to play, the 35-year-old came up with his best save of the night on Borgstrom.
The play then turned down to the other end of the ice, forcing Florida’s Frank Vatrano to haul down Montreal’s Michael Chaput.
Panthers defenceman MacKenzie Weegar shot the puck over the glass a minute and 19 seconds later, and Montreal’s Tomas Tatar scored right as Vatrano was stepping out of the box to make it 3-2 Canadiens.
Niemi allowed a goal to Keith Yandle with 1:16 remaining. One he had no chance on.
But he held the fort as the Panthers pushed for more seconds later, and he walked away with a well-earned win.
Tatar keeps on rolling
Tatar’s power-play goal, at 8:54 of the third period, was his second tally of the night.
His first came 35 seconds into the game, when he crossed over from the left wing to the slot and roofed a backhand over goaltender Roberto Luongo’s arm to open the scoring.
That’s now 14 goals and 14 assists in 38 games for the man who was the throw-in to the deal that sent Max Pacioretty away from the Canadiens and to the Vegas Golden Knights on Sept. 10.
Tatar had gone six games without a point before Montreal’s last game ahead of the Christmas break. But he came to Vegas with the Canadiens on Dec. 22 and appeared to be on a mission from the second the puck dropped to the second the game ended 4-3 in favour of his team, registering two assists in that one.
He was probably Montreal’s best player in that game, and he was definitely their best player in Florida—adding four shots on net to his two goals, dominating possession (60 per cent Corsi For, according to naturalstattrick.com), and forcing turnovers all over the ice.
Canadiens on their toes from start to finish
The Canadiens played a stifling game in all three zones, skating the Panthers into the ground from start to finish.
It’s a recipe that’s given Montreal 20 wins in 38 games. One that vaulted them past the Boston Bruins and into the first wild-card position in the Eastern Conference on Friday.
As Brendan Gallagher put it following the team’s 46-shot output in Vegas:
“When we skate, we give every team in the league trouble, and that’s got to be our strength. When we get away from that, we’re a bad team, and I think we’re starting to understand that.”
“For the most part this year, we’ve been skating, we’ve been moving our feet,” added Gallagher. “It puts teams on their heels, and when we can come at teams like that line after line with the speed we have I think it’s got to be the identity of our group. I think it’s why we’ve been getting the results we have so far.”
There’s no question about it.
If you want a sense for how well the Canadiens executed that style of game against Florida—not that the Panthers played their best—leading scorers Alexsander Barkov and Jonathan Huberdeau were held to zero shots on net through the first 58 minutes.
Huberdeau, who came into Friday’s game with 25 points in his last 15 outings, got one scoring chance with Luongo pulled and an extra man on the ice for his side. He pinged it off the post.
Barkov got one harmless shot off in those dying minutes. It came right before Jonathan Drouin made a good hustle play and iced the game for Montreal with an empty-net goal at 19:37 of the third period.
If Drouin and the Canadiens bring that speed into Tampa Bay Saturday, they’ll give themselves their best chance at a win over the rested Lightning, who have rattled off 15 wins in their last 17 games.