EDMONTON — Shea Weber had an axe to grind, and he stood on the Montreal blue-line Wednesday like Paul Bunyan. Tall, strong, and not afraid to wield the tool of his trade.
Of course, they don’t allow hatchets in hockey, so Weber wielded the shaft of his Bauer like a two-by-four, clearing the crease in front of goalie Jake Allen with the cross checks of a man who would deny entry to even the great Gordie Howe on a night like this.
We’re not saying Weber played dirty. We loved his game, played like a guy who just bought stocks in an ice bag company.
“They have some big bodies back there,” observed Ryan Nugent-Hopkins. “They make it tough to get to the net.”
Weber was a beast, and of course, his team followed. Like they had any other choice.
On a night when the referees left us scratching our heads — you’re still getting fooled by Corey Perry, after all these years? Really? — you still could not say that the better team didn’t win the hockey game. Montreal avenged their Monday loss here in Edmonton with a solid assertive 4-3 victory, running their seasonal record against Edmonton to 5-2.
The Habs throw a game at the Oilers that nobody else in the North does. It’s uber-physical, with a healthy dose of obstruction that relies on playoff refereeing.
And it left a mark, with Jujhar Khaira leaving due to a concussion on Monday, and Zack Kassian seen limping off the ice in the first period after delivering a healthy check.
On Monday the Oilers fought through the mire in a 4-1 win. On Wednesday, the Canadiens simply did not relent.
“They were a desperate team, and they came hard. I didn’t think we were matching the intensity and will behind them,” Oilers head coach Dave Tippett said. “It was a hard-fought battle. We came up a little short.”
Montreal almost blew a 4-1 lead when Edmonton scored two late goals. Truly, Montreal’s third goal was the back-breaker, and it came with Leon Draisaitl in the box after an atrocious interference call.
Pounded mercilessly all night long by Weber and his mates, Draisaitl took an opportunity to level Joel Edmundson with a heavy check a quarter-second after the Habs defenceman dumped the puck. The interference penalty levied against him had Tippett apoplectic.
“An interference call on a guy that just passed the puck. On a body check,” he marvelled. “It was, it was… I’ll just leave it at that.”
But harping on the sub-terranean level of refereeing obscures the fact that Montreal was the better team.
Two nights ago, the Habs folded up in the final nine minutes, watching a 1-0 lead turn into a 4-1 loss. On Wednesday, their captain Weber, as solid and physical a defenceman as his generation has seen, played like the Team Canada player he is, barring the door to the scoring area on rush after rush.
Josh Anderson also scored twice, only to have his stick break as he shot at an empty net with a second to play. Criminal, it was.
“They didn’t give up a whole lot through the middle the whole night. A tight checking game on both sides,” Nugent-Hopkins said. “A hard-fought game, the way all the games are going to be down the stretch.
“They want to hold us up, hook us a little bit… It’s the way it’s going to be,” he continued. “It’s tight-checking games right now. We’ve got to find a way to work through it. We did an OK job at that tonight — obviously we can be better. But it’s in here. We’ve got no quit right now.”
Between the Habs’ winning style, the refs swallowing their whistles, and the Oilers pushing back with an excellent physical game of their own, this two-game split had all the trappings of playoff hockey.
“Hard fought games. You have to fight for every bit of ice,” said Tippett.
Is his team better for having played these games?
“You’re playing hard, playoff-style games, so that’s good for your team,” the coach said. “How you react, how you play in those games, you find out a lot about your players. Who can battle at that level? So you find out a lot about your team.
“You’re probably right there. It’s good for your team.”