MONTREAL — It took the New York Islanders 59:50 to get to 20 shots on net on Monday, but all John Tavares and Mathew Barzal needed to lead them to a 5-4 overtime win over the Montreal Canadiens was just a few good opportunities.
Tavares had an unassisted goal on a short-handed breakaway in the second period and scored the winner 1:51 into the extra frame. Meanwhile, Barzal somehow outshone him by scoring a goal and two assists and displaying a flair for the game that is practically unrivalled in the world’s best league.
“It’s unbelievable to see a 20-year-old or 21-year-old skate the way he (Barzal) does with the puck and handle it probably as close as I’ve seen to [Connor] McDavid in terms of skill and speed,” said Canadiens forward Paul Byron. “Incredible talent to watch and play against. At the same time, it was a big challenge for our line to match up against him and unfortunately we came out on the wrong end of it.”
There’s no doubt about that.
New York’s one-two punch up the middle looked like an impossible challenge for the Canadiens to overcome, and it proved to be exactly that—in spite of the fact that they threw more pucks (56) at Islanders goaltender Thomas Greiss than they had recorded in a regular-season game in 28 years. With centre Phillip Danault nursing concussion symptoms from a Zdeno Chara slapshot that struck him in the head on Saturday, and with centre Andrew Shaw suffering a lower-body injury in the same game, the Canadiens were reduced to moving Byron and Jacob de la Rose to the middle from the wing.
“Tough start getting out there and getting a couple of minuses,” Byron said.
It wasn’t going to be easy playing a position he’d never really been in over his eight-year NHL career.
The Canadiens were creating havoc in front of Greiss on the second shift of the game when Barzal took the puck and flew out of the zone. He sent it up the ice to Anthony Beauvillier, and a perfect shot from the 20-year-old Quebecer made it 1-0 New York.
There was no catching Barzal five minutes later, when he took off on a two-on-one break, faked pass from his strong side and ripped a snap shot over Carey Price’s glove to make it 2-0.
“He’s by far the best skater in the league,” said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty. “It’s no question. A lot of guys judge speed goal-line to blue line or whatever, a straight line. But he’s crossing over the entire game, winding up, building up speed. Every time we lose the puck in the o-zone, you turn around for a second and I can just see his hair flapping in the wind in front of me and I had to get on my horse and get back…That’s the toughest matchup that I’ve had this year.”
And then there was Tavares, who was kept largely in check by Tomas Plekanec but buried his two best opportunities of the game.
This is the difference two dynamic centres can make for a team. If there’s any franchise that knows it, it’s the Canadiens, who have been missing those pieces of the puzzle for far too long. That they were reduced to options E and F on Monday was a big factor in why they fell to eight points back of the Islanders for the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference and 11 points back of the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division.
Jonathan Drouin, who is miscast in the role of No. 1 centre according to Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin, had one of his best games of the season, but couldn’t rival what he saw from the Islanders’ two top pivots.
Drouin snapped a 13-game goalless drought in the second period, had five shots and nine attempts and was dangerous all night.
Byron managed to score a goal to make it 2-2 in the first period.
But the Canadiens could do nothing but watch the game be decided by two players who are largely responsible for keeping the Islanders in the race this season — and who have combined for 101 points this season. They were a disallowed goal from winning it outright in regulation, but the right call on an offside challenge made that moot. Greiss did just enough to make Tavares and Barzal’s contributions count.
It won’t get any easier for the Canadiens this week. They’ll travel to Boston for a game against the playoff-bound Bruins Wednesday and then move on to Washington for a game against the Metropolitan Division-leading Capitals on Friday. Montreal wraps up Saturday with another game against Boston—this one at the Bell Centre.
Montreal will have Logan Shaw to help fill the void left by Danault and Andrew Shaw at centre. They picked him up off the Anaheim Ducks through waivers Monday.
But Logan Shaw has just two goals and six assists through 42 games this season. He’s got nothing on Tavares or Barzal.
Neither do Drouin and Byron.