The Montreal Canadiens were 2:57 away from earning a precious point in the standings and returning to a playoff position when Anders Lee took advantage of a perfect pass from Mathew Barzal to give the New York Islanders a 2-1 lead they never relinquished.
A mix up between Montreal’s Max Domi and Brett Kulak at the offensive blue line gave Barzal and Lee the 2-on-1 break that effectively ended the game. It was one of many mistakes from a Canadiens team that came into the game hoping to shore up its defensive play.
“We’ve definitely got to improve in that area,” said assistant captain Brendan Gallagher before the team left for Long Island on Wednesday. “It’s not like the effort’s not there. It’s more maybe a mindset. I think guys are probably thinking you want to contribute a bit too much on the other side of the ice right now and that complete 200-foot game is something that has made us a good team. We’ve had everyone with that mentality and if we get back to that just a bit.
“We have Carey Price, it’s nice to have him in there making the saves, but to make his life a little bit easier I think we have to have a little bit more commitment to limiting the chances.”
If the intention was there, the follow through wasn’t. It didn’t hurt the Canadiens early in the game, when Price stood on his head and made several miraculous saves, but it cost them on the two goals they allowed.
Ouch. This one stung—and not just metaphorically. It was a rough-and-tumble, physical affair that left players on both sides bloodied and bruised. A playoff-style game that served as a warmup for what’s to come for both teams down the stretch and possibly only one of them beyond.
Here are our takeaways from another costly loss:
If not for Price…
The Canadiens would’ve been cooked early on.
Price made unbelievable saves on almost all 15 shots he faced in the first period, snatching pucks out of the air and not allowing rebound opportunities.
He was beat by Adam Pelech 1:20 into the second period after a mess of a shift by his teammates left him scrambling around his crease to save their bacon again.
Later in the period, the Islanders got a power play and had four chances to take a 2-0 lead. The first two came off Josh Bailey’s stick, but Price stood his ground and got his pads on both of them.
Then, as the power play was expiring, Matt Martin came barreling in on the left wing and was stopped by Price’s right pad twice.
The Canadiens’ netminder made 13 saves in the second and eight more in the third, and he had no chance on the Lee shot that beat him to win the game. He deserved better.
The Canadiens didn’t deserve better
They rebounded from their slow start after Price gave them life, but they did not compete at the same level as the Islanders did.
Forward Andrew Shaw was one of a few Canadiens who showed up from start to finish and he did not mince his words when asked about the difference in the game.
“They came out to win the game from the start. They wanted to win more than we did,” Shaw said. “We need to be a team playing hard. Everyone. All lines, all D, goalie; everyone has to be playing their best every night. Lines are taking nights off, players are taking nights off. They don’t have that fight.”
Nassau Coliseum was rocking
The Canadiens knew they were skating into hostile territory, with the Islanders going 9-5-2 at the Coliseum since moving from Barclays Center in Brooklyn halfway through the season.
“They make you earn everything. Especially in that building,” said Gallagher. “We are playing at Nassau, so I think the energy and the environment will be a bit higher than I think it was at the Barclays Center. It’ll probably be a bit more enjoyable game, and I think they’ll probably feed off that a little bit.”
They did, and it was obvious right off the hop.
“The crowd was amazing, the building was rocking, it was fun to play in, and we played a team that looked like it was ready for the playoffs,” said Price.
The Islanders deserve credit
Their commitment to the team-game has been second to none this season.
You have to think that’s a credit to the job Barry Trotz has done as coach since taking over from Doug Weight in the summer months.
“It’s a team that’s well structured,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Wednesday. “When you watch them play, they play well as a team. They really respect what they need to do and they’re consistent because of that. I think they’ve had good goaltending this year. A lot like us, I think their success is spread out through their lineup and that’s given them the opportunity to be where they are right now.”
The biggest reason the Islanders are two points out of first place in the Metropolitan Division is their commitment to defence. They’ve gone from 31st in goals against a season ago to first in the league this year.
Robin Lehner has had a remarkable season in goal. As has Thomas Greiss, who was otherworldly in this game—beaten only by a dipping slapshot from Jordie Benn in the second period.
Julien opted for changes to spark Habs
And they paid immediate dividends.
Jonathan Drouin was removed from a line with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and placed with Max Domi and Shaw. Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia were reunited with Kotkaniemi, who found his game immediately after the change.
And on Paul Byron’s first shift with Jordan Weal and Nate Thompson, he created the play for Benn to capitalize on for Montreal’s only goal.
The Canadiens finished the game by out-shooting the Islanders 25-23 over the final two periods. They were about even in chances, too.
But they lost, and one would expect more change is coming for their showdown with the Chicago Blackhawks at the Bell Centre on Saturday.