MONTREAL — Enter Eric Staal, straight out of quarantine, to score the biggest goal of the season, the Montreal Canadiens’ first in 11 tries at three-on-three overtime, and to beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 after trailing 2-0 going into the third period of Monday’s game.
There’s big, and then there’s monumental. This was monumental, and not just because Staal became the first player in the team’s 112-year history to score an overtime winner in his first game wearing that fabled sweater, but also because of the circumstances that led to it and how they epitomized what the 2021 Canadiens were built for.
At no point this season has their depth faced a great challenge than when Brendan Gallagher took a tipped Alex Romanov slapshot to the hand, winced in agony and skated straight to the bench before walking down the tunnel to the dressing room with Canadiens doctors in tow. That was a sore sight for fans of the team who had watched previous versions go 22-33-4 without Gallagher since he first fractured fingers on his left hand blocking a Johnny Boychuk rocket in November of 2015.
But these Canadiens have Staal, and he’s just the latest addition general manager Marc Bergevin made to this group. Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen, who won the 2019 Stanley Cup together with the St. Louis Blues, were traded for within six days of each other in October. Then came Josh Anderson via trade, followed by Tyler Toffoli, Michael Frolik and Corey Perry as free-agent signings. Just like that, the depth of the Canadiens was bolstered significantly, months before Staal helped push them over the edge in that department and helped them deliver this crucial win.
His arrival on the scene felt large when the puck dropped at the Bell Centre shortly after 7:08 p.m. ET on Monday, with his six-foot-three frame boxing out the bear that is Leon Draisaitl to pull back one of 14 faceoffs he won of the 18 he took. It was growing with every shift opposite superstar Connor McDavid, the forward he matched up most against at five-on-five. And it was just gigantic when he caught a pass from Toffoli while streaking down his opposite wing and shot the puck by Oilers goaltender Mike Smith at 4:02 of overtime.
Had fans been in attendance, they’d have shook the Bell Centre to its core.
“Wish it was full, because I know what this place is like when it’s full — especially in that moment,” said the 36-year-old, who had accumulated 45 points in 51 games against the Canadiens over the course of his Hall-of-Fame-worthy career. “But it was awesome nonetheless.
“I was thankful that it was my opportunity tonight but, as a group, we’ve got a lot of guys that can be difference-makers here.”
Start in goal, where Carey Price gave the Canadiens a chance to regain their footing after they lost their balance and gave Devon Shore the game’s first goal with 20 seconds remaining in the first period.
The goaltender lost his in the second period and came up limping, only to push through the pain to stop 13 of 14 shots he faced.
“He made some big saves,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “We got into penalty trouble there. Giving three power plays to that team in one period, you’re looking for trouble, and they scored at the end of one at the end of the period. He made some great saves and kept us in reach. He bought us time in the second period to really come back and have a chance to win in the third, and that’s what we did.”
Ducharme added Price was being examined after the game and that, pending further evaluation, nothing appears to be seriously wrong with him.
But if the 33-year-old is injured, Allen, with his .922 save percentage over 12 starts, has proven more than capable of filling the void whereas no one was over the last few seasons.
The Canadiens of the last few seasons would have suffered a great deal with an injury to a top-three defenceman, like the one Ben Chiarot has been recovering from since March 10, but they improved to 6-3-2 without Chiarot on Monday, and it’s at least in part because Brett Kulak has moved up from the third pair to the second pair and played exceptionally well while Victor Mete has moved from the fringe and done his part in Kulak’s spot.
The Canadiens of the last few seasons would’ve had no chance down on the scoreboard and in the room after Gallagher suffered a fractured right thumb on that unfortunate play in the first period, but this season’s team had Perry to jumpstart them in the second minute of the third.
There was Anderson to drive to Gallagher’s on-ice home (the opposing goaltender’s crease) and bury his 14th goal of the season on the picture-perfect pass Perry made.
The game was tied 5:23 into the frame when 31-year-old Paul Byron forced things on the forecheck and found 30-year-old Tomas Tatar, who buried it from the lane Gallagher usually fills as a right winger.
Toffoli to Staal was game over.
That’s depth. The kind that can help this team withstand an injury to a player as vital as Gallagher.
“He’s a big presence in that room,” said Perry. “He’s going to be missed.”
But so is this from Perry: “That’s why we're deep. That’s why we have the leadership in that room to push ourselves forward. He’s a big hole to fill, but there’s guys who can come in and do his job until he’s ready to come back.”
There’s guys already with the Canadiens — all the ones we mentioned, but others, too. Guys like Jonathan Drouin, Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi, but also Jake Evans — a centre capable of playing right wing, one who was playing great hockey before he was bumped out of the deep lineup by Staal.
Joel Armia, who tested positive for COVID-19 two weeks ago but could be back in action over the coming days, also plays right wing.
Oh, and there’s Cole Caufield. The 20-year-old, who torched the college circuit for two years after shattering Auston Matthews’ scoring record with the U.S. National Development Program Team, just so happens to play that position and he could viably make his NHL debut in Gallagher’s place against Matthews and the Maple Leafs in Toronto Wednesday now that he’s completed the mandatory seven-day quarantine he had to serve after signing his entry-level contract with the team two Saturdays ago.
“We’re going to look at every option,” said Ducharme.
It’s what he did in overtime, calling on Staal to do what none of these Canadiens had managed before.
“Any time you can have a moment like that, especially coming to a new team with the weeks I’ve had leading up to this, it’s pretty special,” said Staal, who suffered through a 17-game winless streak with the Buffalo Sabres before he was traded to Montreal on March 26. “This was a moment for sure I’ll keep in the memory bank, but I’m hoping there’s even bigger and better ones in the next while.”