MONTREAL — Nate Thompson held court with reporters wearing two knee braces, extra padding on his left shoulder and a gap-toothed grin fit for an NHL veteran of 690 games. He had just skated 22 shifts in a 4-0 win for the Montreal Canadiens over the New York Islanders. Hard shifts. Playoff-style shifts. One in particular that typified his team’s desperate effort on the night.
It was in the eighth minute of the first period that Thompson jumped over the boards to help kill off a Jeff Petry cross-checking penalty. He collected the puck on a Matt Barzal turnover and rushed it up the ice before pinning it against the wall. Devon Toews approached him from the front, Brock Nelson from the back, and Cal Clutterbuck came charging in to steal the puck and rush it back up ice.
That’s when Thompson spun his way through all three Islanders and made a beeline towards goaltender Thomas Greiss for a Grade-A scoring chance.
“I don’t know what happened there,” the 34-year-old said afterwards. “I was just trying to win the puck battle. I somehow kept it in my feet and somehow when I spun out there I still had the puck and they were all behind me.”
It was sheer will. The kind the Canadiens had to display to dispirit the Islanders right off the hop. The kind they’ve shown at different points of this season but not quite enough of late. The kind they need from here to the bitter end if they want to keep playing when it matters most.
For two weeks, the players had talked about playing playoff hockey but they couldn’t seem to muster it on the ice. Then they notched 48 shots in a 2-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday, put together a dominant performance in a 3-1 win over a Philadelphia Flyers team that was playing with its season on the line on Tuesday, and they finally hit their stride in Thursday’s win over the Islanders.
It was clear the Canadiens had approached this game with right mindset.
“We were all disappointed with how we played [in a 2-1 loss at the Islanders a week ago],” said Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw earlier in the day. “They out-competed us, out-worked us, out-chanced us, and we’ll have a better game right from the puck-drop.”
He was right. The shots read 13-10, the shot attempts 23-16, and it was 25-8 in hits for the Canadiens after one period.
Petry threw his weight around—and a couple of slashes, too. Max Domi drilled Casey Cizikas with an open-ice hit. Even 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi got in on the first-period parade—throwing his body into 6-foot-3, 195-pound forward Andrew Ladd.
With less than six seconds remaining in the frame, a couple of slumping players in Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia used Jordan Weal as a go-between to register Montreal’s second power-play goal in its last 42 attempts. Their passing play, which Armia finished from the slot, got the Canadiens the lead they had worked so hard to establish.
Bottom line? Everyone in bleu, blanc et rouge showed up, and within nine minutes of the second period, the Canadiens had added to their lead three times on goals by captain Shea Weber, Drouin and Weal.
In the third period, Montreal limited New York to just two shots on net through the first seven minutes and gave up just two scoring chances to the end. As time expired, Carey Price celebrated the 44th shutout of his career to pull within two of the great Ken Dryden for third place in the category in franchise history.
And the Canadiens? They pulled to within two points of the Carolina Hurricanes for the first wild-card position and leapfrogged over the Columbus Blue Jackets for the second one in the Eastern Conference to recapture a playoff spot for the first time since falling out of one in California two weeks ago.
It started with Thompson’s effort on the penalty kill. He and Artturi Lehkonen did a number on the Islanders in the offensive zone. Then, after Weber joined Petry in the box for hooking Nick Leddy on a breakaway, the Canadiens stepped up even bigger.
They were down two men for 21 seconds and never let the puck get near Price. They finished the entire 3:39 penalty-killing sequence with three shots to New York’s two.
“That was phenomenal,” said Domi. “Obviously, you don’t want to go down against a team like that early in. But when you’ve got Carey in net and you got the PKers we have…they were all working so hard, they were all blocking shots, they were forcing them down the ice. [The Islanders] couldn’t really get anything created, get anything started. That’s what we want.”
The Canadiens got what they wanted all night; won battles all over the ice, hard forechecking, relentless backchecking, world class goaltending and a big win to show for it.
“I thought we were very assertive,” said Price. “I thought we played real well on both sides of the puck. We’re playing as a good group and we’re using our assets as we should be. If we keep doing that, I’m pretty sure we’re going to be successful for the rest of the season. We’re a tough team to play against when we play like that.”
It’s a template that’s led the Canadiens to a 38-29-7 record. They’ll give themselves their best chance at qualifying for the playoffs if they can follow it over their remaining eight games.