MONTREAL — You know how badly the NHL’s most dangerous line and their Colorado Avalanche wanted it, but Shea Weber and Carey Price were largely responsible for taking it away from them.
It’s a formula the Montreal Canadiens weren’t forced to depend on to register the majority of their wins through the first half of the season, but one they’ll certainly have to rely on more and more as the games get tighter and tougher from here to the end.
Saturday’s contest was your prototypical second-half-of-the-NHL-season type of game. A tight checking, physical affair that saw no goals exchanged through the first two periods. One that appeared as though it was going to come down to one single shot.
Under those circumstances, anyone would have surely given the edge to a team that possesses a line that’s combined for 185 points this season. A line that was highly motivated to help snap a funk that’s derailed the momentum Colorado built over the first three months; one dead-set on halting a 1-6-2 run that’s threatened to push the Avalanche to the margins of the Western Conference playoff picture.
But if Nathan MacKinnon, Mikko Rantanen and Gabriel Landeskog left the Bell Centre shaking their heads in frustration—all three of them held off the scoresheet for just the sixth time this season—it had everything to do with the blanket Weber (with help of partner Victor Mete and a strong backcheck from the Canadiens’ forwards) threw on top of them for 75 per cent of their shifts.
As for their teammates? They were held largely in check. But when they did break free, they were smothered by Price, who made 28 saves for the 3-0 shutout.
The Montreal goaltender wasn’t tested much by the league’s omnipotent trio, but he came up with the saves he had to on them. The ones he made on Colorado’s other skaters were his best of the night.
Price’s first big save came early, when Tyson Jost skated into the slot with the puck on his stick and with all kinds of time to shoot it. He stood his ground and made a difficult glove stop appear routine.
Price followed that up with two huge saves on Carl Soderberg on a second-period penalty kill, and he slammed the door shut on a third-period breakaway for Matt Calvert.
In front of him, Weber was a human eraser over the 24:53 he played.
“We’ve played against some of the best defencemen in the league and we do it every night. He’s up there, no doubt he’s up there,” said Landeskog of having to match up against the 6-foot-4, 230-pound defenceman they call ‘Man Mountain’. “He’s a big guy, has a long stick, and he’s been around for a long time. He’s good on both sides of the puck and he’s tough to play against.”
Weber might have been better on Saturday than he’s been in any of the other 21 contests he’s appeared in this season. The evidence wasn’t abundantly clear on the stat sheet—he had two shots on net, six attempts, two hits, three blocks, and he finished the game plus-2.
But it was found in how limited the opportunities were for MacKinnon, Rantanen and Landeskog. Outside of a second-period wraparound from Landeskog, the Avalanche’s top line generated one other quality scoring chance: A MacKinnon shot on a third-period power play that was partially blocked and didn’t even make it to Price’s net.
The man with 26 goals through his first 44 games had just one shot that hit the net, as did Rantanen. Both were harmless ones taken in the final 10 minutes of the game, while the Avalanche chased down a two-goal deficit thanks to Montreal goals from Brett Kulak and Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
“Weber was really good tonight,” said MacKinnon.
“Shea’s Shea,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “He’s a solid player. Especially tonight, in a situation where he’s playing against arguably the best line in the league right now production-wise.
“Size-wise, they’re big. They’re strong, they’re fast, they’re skilled.”
Without Weber’s performance, they would have prevailed. And without Price’s calming influence on the game, the Canadiens probably wouldn’t have come out on the winning end.
They had scored just 10 goals in the six games leading up to this one, losing three of four and forcing Julien to mix his top three lines up. And they were afforded the time to find some chemistry.
Kulak scored in the ninth minute of the third period to break the ice. Kotkaniemi followed with his two minutes and 19 seconds later. And Jordie Benn put the game out of reach with 1:16 to play, when he scored on an empty net from his own zone.
The win put the Canadiens back in a playoff spot—with the New York Islanders losing to the New York Rangers earlier in the day and the Buffalo Sabres dropping their game against the Tampa Bay Lightning. How far up they climb over their final 36 games will depend largely on Weber and Price delivering like they did on Saturday.