Takeaways: Price, Armia keep Canadiens ahead in tight playoff race

Joel Armia got the empty net goal to complete the hat trick as the Canadiens beat the Rangers 4-2.

There can be no relent for the Montreal Canadiens. Not at this stage; Not with the Pittsburgh Penguins, Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets neck and neck with them in the Eastern Conference playoff race.

On Friday, while the Canadiens were taking care of business in New York, the Penguins squeezed out a point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres and the Hurricanes took care of the St. Louis Blues 5-2. Both teams have one game in hand and both of them, along with the Blue Jackets, are within two points of the Canadiens. So, to say this was a big win—a 4-2 come-from-behind effort against a young, feisty Rangers team—would be understating it.

The Penguins visit Montreal for a four-point game on Saturday. By the time the puck drops at the Bell Centre, the Columbus Blue Jackets will have already finished their game against the Edmonton Oilers and the Hurricanes will be in Florida to take on the Panthers. The tension of the situation is palpable, and it’s all but guaranteed to be so through the 17 remaining games on Montreal’s schedule.

The Canadiens will play nine on the road from here to the end and they’ll play nine total against teams currently in playoff positions. Hold your breath if you’re a fan of theirs.

Meanwhile, try to enjoy our takeaways from the win that allowed the Canadiens to retain their position as the first wild-card team in the East.

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Carey Price stood on his head

The Canadiens’ franchise player was worth every penny and more of his $15-million salary in this one, calming the waters while the team in front of him skated haphazardly through the first 20 minutes.

He was beaten by a Vladislav Namestnikov tip 4:45 into the frame, but he came up with some unbelievable saves from that point on.

Price’s best of the night? A second-period right-to-left shuffle with a leg extension to get a pad on a Namestnikov one-timer from 15 feet out. He dove into position and somehow didn’t allow a rebound on the desperation save.

By game’s end, Price had 27 other saves to his name, with Brendan Lemieux’s third-period marker the only other one to beat him. He notched the 313th win of his career to pull within one of the Canadiens’ all-time leader, Jacques Plante.

You have to think he’ll get his first crack at doing it on Saturday against Pittsburgh, and if he comes through, it’ll be a fine bit of symmetry considering his first-ever win in the NHL was against Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin and the Penguins.

Price was asked after the game if this is the best he’s felt physically in quite some time and he responded with an emphatic “Oh yeah!.”

When the 31-year-old was asked if he’d be up for playing Saturday after making back-to-back starts against New Jersey and Detroit earlier this week, he said, “That’s always a big question. We’ll re-address it in the morning, but I’m sure.”

A familiar bounce

Last Saturday, a completely peculiar bounce at Scotiabank Arena gave William Nylander a goal on Price to make it 4-3 Toronto Maple Leafs over the Canadiens.

“Those tend to even out over the season,” said Andrew Shaw shortly afterwards.

Well, after Brendan Gallagher scored his 28th goal of the season on a great setup from Tomas Tatar, Joel Armia was the beneficiary of a puck that took a near-identical bounce to the one Nylander got in Toronto. The 6-foot-4 Finn took the rebound off Henrik Lundqvist’s last-ditch pad save and buried it into to the top portion of the Rangers’ net.

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Another first hat trick

That strange goal was the first of three Armia scored in this game, giving him the first hat trick of his NHL career.

He became the third Canadien to achieve the feat in their last five games, with Gallagher having scored his first hat trick in a 5-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers on Feb. 21 and Shaw having recorded his in the 8-1 beating Montreal handed Detroit in Tuesday.

Armia’s second goal, which stood as the winner, was a sample of his growth as a player in his fourth NHL season. He muscled his way down the ice on a two-on-one, fought off Brady Skjei’s best effort to contain him, and he ripped a shot to the short side of Lundqvist’s net.

Armia’s 10th goal of the season, scored into an empty net with 37 seconds remaining, provided some much-needed insurance for the Canadiens.

You look at his season as a whole and you can see the maturation. He missed 25 games smack in the middle of it with a knee injury, but he’s been a big contributor to Montreal’s excellent 5-on-5 play this season, driving possession with that big frame of his and with stick skills that are almost unmatched on the team.

The trade that brought Armia to the Canadiens may rank below the ones that brought Max Domi and Tomas Tatar in the off-season, but it was a crafty piece of work by general manager Marc Bergevin, who allowed the Winnipeg Jets to borrow some of his cap space to relieve themselves of goaltender Steve Mason’s expiring $4.1-million salary.

Bergevin squeezed two picks and Armia out of the Jets for taking Mason’s contract and he handed over a prospect in Simon Bourque who went from the AHL a year ago to the North American Hockey League and the Canadian college circuit this year. That’s a heck of a haul.

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Balanced scoring continues to be key for Canadiens

There were 10 different players who factored into the scoring for the Canadiens on this night. They had 12 in on the goals they scored in Detroit on Tuesday.

Paul Byron notched at least one point for the sixth consecutive game, 18-year-old rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi registered his 32nd point on Armia’s second goal of the game, and defenceman Jordie Benn recorded his fourth assist in his last six games to get within two points of his career-high of 20 (set in 2014 with the Dallas Stars).

The Canadiens have two players with over 50 points and another four on pace to score at least that many. They also have eight players with more than 30 points and three with over 20 goals. And Jonathan Drouin (17) and Shaw (16), who were held in check by the Rangers, are both on pace to score at least 20.

If you’re trying to figure out how the Canadiens have achieved this type of balance with a power play that’s run at 12.6 per-cent efficiency for the season, well… so are we. That they’ve managed to do it has been one of the biggest factors in their success.

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