“Character wins,” is how Montreal Canadiens captain Shea Weber described back-to-back victories over the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers earlier this week.
They were Games 7 and 8 over a 13-day period, and they were won on the strength of extraordinary goaltending from Carey Price and Antti Niemi, who combined to make 93 saves.
The Canadiens giving up 96 shots over two games was out of character — they came into Friday’s game with the fourth-best shot attempt differential in the NHL — and almost certainly a function of their demanding schedule making it hard for them to sustain the speed-game they’ve relied on to earn the majority of their wins over their first 48 games.
But they battled to prevail and did in the end.
In Columbus on Friday, the Canadiens, who hadn’t played since Tuesday, were a bit sharper in front of Price. Sure, they still allowed 35 shots, but they were also playing against a Blue Jackets team that had won four straight and 11 of its last 15 games. A Blue Jackets team that plays the type of hard-hitting, heavy-style of game that the smallest and lightest team in the league has had issues with this season.
“We’re going to have to obviously use our speed, but we’re going to have to win those puck battles,” said Weber on Thursday before he and his teammates departed for Columbus.
“Whether that’s getting inside and just using our sticks because we’re not that big of a team or it’s just outworking them, we’ve got to win those battles and then use our speed when we can. Get in off the rush, get inside their house, so we can get those good quality chances against their goalie.”
It was going to take character, which the Canadiens displayed in establishing a 2-0 lead before closing out the game with two goals Joel Armia scored into a vacated net.
The 4-1 win allowed Montreal to continue putting pressure on the teams above them in the standings. It was their fourth in a row, tying them with the Boston Bruins in points (59), having played 49 games to Boston’s 48, and placing them just one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs, who own two games in hand.
As for the teams behind the Canadiens in the playoff race? A regulation loss for the Buffalo Sabres to the Vancouver Canucks on this Friday night would put them five points behind with a game in hand while the Carolina Hurricanes lost in regulation to the Ottawa Senators, leaving them 10 points back with two games in hand.
Let’s get to some takeaways from Montreal’s big win in Columbus.
Price continues to shine
He came into the game playing some of the best hockey of any goaltender in the NHL since Dec. 1 and improved on his numbers before night’s end.
Price, who entered Friday’s game with a .928 save percentage since that date, stopped 34 of 35 shots. None were better than the pad save he made on 27-goal man Cam Atkinson, which came off a one-timer from right in the middle of the slot with just over five minutes to play in the second period.
But Price’s glove save seconds later on Alexander Wenneberg was world class. His stop on a David Savard high heater in the third was excellent. And the one he made with the blocker, on a Ryan Murray breakaway with 11:22 remaining in the game, preserved a 2-1 lead for the Canadiens.
The one shot that beat Price? A rebound chance for Oliver Bjorkstrand he couldn’t do anything about. He was close to corralling the puck, too, on the Seth Jones shot that generated it.
In seven January appearances, Price now has four wins and owns a save percentage of .951.
Tatar is the gift that keeps on giving
Tatar opened the scoring 6:44 into the game, taking advantage of a rebound off a blistering Weber shot from the point to score into an empty net.
He added his 16th of the season in the second period after the Canadiens went 18:25 without a shot on net.
Tomas Tatar hadn’t scored in 10 games and came into the game with only three tallies in his last 22 games. But he’s well on pace to record the fourth 20-goal season of his career, and with 36 points in 49 games there’s a strong chance he’s going to surpass his career high of 56 points with the Detroit Red Wings (2014-15).
The 27-year-old Slovak was the throw-in to the trade that brought ace prospect Nick Suzuki and a 2019 second-round pick from the Vegas Golden Knights to the Canadiens for Max Pacioretty. A deal that gets better by the day with Tatar doing what he’s doing for Montreal and Suzuki ripping up the Ontario Hockey League (53 points in 35 games).
Danault playing the best hockey of his career
The Canadiens top-line centre has hit his stride at 25 years old.
He made a great play on Tatar’s second goal to register his 18th point in his last 18 games.
Phillip Danault, who leads the Canadiens in faceoffs percentage, also won 56 per cent of his draws on Friday. And he played 1:41 of the 2:57 that Montreal was shorthanded in the game, helping his team kill off both penalties it took.
“He’s playing really good hockey,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Thursday. “We depend a lot on him and we give him a lot of responsibility, like a (Patrice) Bergeron in Boston. I don’t like making comparisons because one has more experience than the other, but let’s just say Phillip is certainly going in the right direction. He certainly wants to imitate Patrice Bergeron, and he’s trying to do the things that will give him that opportunity. Faceoffs, also his good work on the penalty kill, I rely on him a lot late in games for faceoffs in our zone. All those things are making him an extremely useful player.”
Danault has also done very well on offence, collecting eight goals and 33 points in 49 games. His previous career highs are 13 goals and 40 points—established on a line with Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov in the 2016-17 season.