California hasn’t been kind to the Montreal Canadiens in recent years. In fact, it’s been downright menacing—with the Los Angeles Kings, San Jose Sharks and Anaheim Ducks beating them in 20 of their last 23 games played in the state.
So, even against a Kings team that came into Tuesday’s game ranked 29th out of 31 in the NHL, there was serious—and justified—concern from Canadiens fans that their team would get off on the wrong foot on the West Coast. Concern that only raised considerably when earlier in the evening the Columbus Blue Jackets beat the New Jersey Devils in a shootout and knocked the Canadiens to the bubble of the Eastern Conference playoff race.
The pressure ramped up with that Columbus win, as it did with the Pittsburgh Penguins extending their lead in the standings over Montreal to four points with an overtime win over the Florida Panthers and the Carolina Hurricanes moving two points up with an overtime loss to the Boston Bruins. The Canadiens faced it down and achieved a 3-1 win at Staples Center to climb back into the second wild-card position in the East.
It certainly wouldn’t be overstating it to say that it was the biggest one of their season to date. They accomplished it by suffocating the Kings with their speed, and by limiting the scoring chances and taking advantage of their best opportunities—offering a dominant performance when it mattered most.
It’s one the Canadiens hope to build on Thursday in San Jose, where they haven’t won in their last 11 attempts.
Before we head there, here are some takeaways from this one.
Brendan Gallagher brings Canadiens into the fight
Big game? Big start for Brendan Gallagher, who tipped Victor Mete’s point shot from the high slot at 3:11 of the first period to record his 30th goal of the season.
With so much on the line for the Canadiens in this one, you’d have expected Gallagher would do his part to help deliver them a win. The goal was his seventh in his last seven games, and it was his 25th at 5-on-5, which ties him for third-most in the NHL with Washington’s Alexander Ovechkin.
Last season, the 26-year-old set a career high with 31 goals in 82 games. He said on many occasions he’d have traded all of them for more wins in the standings for the 28th-ranked Canadiens. So you know he must be very content to be on pace for 37 goals and consistently contributing to a playoff push for his team.
Julien’s bold decision pays off
Let’s just say the reaction from Canadiens fans was slightly hyperbolic when coach Claude Julien announced earlier on Tuesday that he was scratching 18-year-old rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi in favour of Jordan Weal for his team’s game against the Kings.
By slightly hyperbolic, we mean Canadiens fans were in full-blown meltdown mode on social media in the lead up to the 10:30 p.m. ET puck drop.
But they calmed down considerably when Weal notched the game’s first scoring chance on his first shift since coming over in a trade that sent Michael Chaput to the Arizona Coyotes on Feb. 25.
By the time Weal scored the game’s second goal, at 10:07 of the second period, the fans were just about over it.
Weal had an excellent chance at another goal with time expiring in the third period, but he shanked it. Either way, that did nothing to dull his first performance as a Canadien.
Weal’s official stat line for the game: He had a goal, four shots on net, five attempts, won six of nine draws and had a 67 per-cent Corsi For in just over 14 minutes of ice time.
As for Kotkaniemi, Julien’s reasoning for scratching him from the lineup was perfectly sound.
“He has played a lot of hockey since the start of the season between pre-season games and rookie camp,” Julien said. “Over the last few weeks, we find that he slowed down a bit. We’re going to give him a chance to recover. It’s something that’s entirely normal for a youngster who is just 18 years old. He has played more hockey than almost all of the guys on the ice since the start of the season. It isn’t a decision that’s based on something negative. We made it to help him finish the season strong.”
Carey Price made history
With 26 saves—including 10-bellers on Ilya Kovalchuk, Jeff Carter, Alex Iafallo and Anze Kopitar—Carey Price tied Jacques Plante for first place on Montreal’s all-time wins list with the 314th victory of his career.
The Canadiens gave him a head start in the first period by surrendering only seven shots, none of which came from the high-danger zone. In the second, he stepped up huge by stopping a Kovalchuk one-timer before turning aside a Carter half-breakaway.
Price’s best of the night came on Iafallo from the doorstep of his crease while the Canadiens were clinging to a 2-0 lead. And after Shea Weber blasted home his 10th goal of the season 41 seconds into the third, the Montreal netminder was practically infallible.
Matt Luff scored on a perfect shot 11:03 into the final frame, but all other Kings chances were thwarted by Price. It was an impressive performance, especially considering the 31-year-old had flown to Los Angeles with the flu and missed practice on Monday.
Price’s first chance to own the record outright will likely come against the Sharks on Thursday. If he can achieve it, and put an end to that ugly losing streak for the Canadiens in the Bay Area, that would be remarkable.
Either way, with Price entrenched in Year 1 of an eight-year, $84 million contract, he will shatter the record before all is said and done.