Still Talkin’ Habs: Canadiens rue missed chances in 2-1 OT loss to Vegas, series tied at 2-2

It was never going to be straightforward, was it?

The Montreal Canadiens fell victim to the same storyline that won them Game 3, getting sucker-punched in overtime by the Las Vegas Golden Knights to lose 2-1 and head back to Nevada with the semifinal series tied at 2-2.

Vegas head coach Pete Deboer made a bold call by starting Robin Lehner in net over Marc-Andre Fleury and it paid dividends in a major way. Lehner was terrific in the first period despite his teammates struggling to cope with the early push by the Habs.

His double save on Eric Staal and Joel Armia (which upon review looked like it had been stopped by Lehner’s glove in the net, but could not be overturned on video) denied the Habs their reward for a fast start.

The Swede’s performance didn’t rattle the Canadiens as they played their most complete game of the series.

The Habs looked composed and confident all over the ice.

Hungry offensively, dogged in the neutral zone and stifling defensively. The home team’s utter domination could be best summed up in the 'high danger' chances department.

Per Natural Stat Trick, the Canadiens owned Vegas 17-1.

17-1. And they lost 2-1.

Where the Canadiens lost Sunday night’s game was their wasteful finishing.

Along with Staal and Armia, Corey Perry and Josh Anderson both couldn’t find a way to convert in the first off of some glorious opportunities.

Cole Caufield had the best two chances in the third period.

One he fired off the side-netting from a tight angle, while the other was a breakaway chance that was stopped by Lehner five-hole.

In between were a myriad of crease scrums and almost chances that made it feel like it was only a matter of time before one would go in.

It didn’t.

The result did feel somewhat justified considering the Habs were the beneficiaries of a similar script on Friday night.

In keeping with that theme, the role of village idiot for the second straight game was once again played by the zebras.

The Tragically Hip, universal healthcare and Chris Lee’s refereeing seem to be the only things that hockey fans from coast to coast can agree upon after the past two games.

Media from both big companies. Leafs and Senators fans alike.

When a referee is out on the ice in Game 4 of the Stanley Cup semifinals inventing new hand signals on the fly, you know he’s lost complete control.

In the end, the Canadiens didn’t lose this game because of the referees.

But they weren’t given a fair opportunity to win it either.

Consistency from game to game is theoretically impossible because referees are human.

As much as anyone would want clear enforcement of the rules, there will be discrepancies.

These guys aren’t robots. But setting a standard within the game, especially early, makes it clear what players can and cannot get away with it.

The standard Sunday night could be best described as the inmates running the asylum.

There were two plays in particular that summed up the absentee style of refereeing last night.

After Vegas forward Thomas Nosek boarded Shea Weber in the corner, Weber responded with a punch to the back of the head.

Still hot under the collar, the man-mountain gave Nosek a cross-check for good measure.

As the two squared up against each other, the whistle was blown only after the play was essentially abandoned due to the tussle between the two.

In the closing stages of the second, Nick Suzuki got tangled up with defenseman Brayden McNabb.

After a few shives between the two, McNabb responded with a right jab to Suzuki’s face right in front of Lee.

His response? Literally turning his head away from the situation and then retreating behind the net to give the NBA sign for travelling.

Seriously?

So what are we to expect in Game 5?

Competent refereeing, one would hope. Good riddance to Lee and Dan O’Rourke.

What the Habs should focus on is replicating exactly what they did Sunday night. Bear down on a few more chances and you’re in a commanding 3-1 position in the series.

Now it’s first-to-three with everything to play for. Destiny still hangs in the balance for the Montreal Canadiens.

They just need to go out there and grab it. Destiny really likes more than one goal. So does Carey Price.

PLAYER RATINGS

GOALTENDER

Carey Price – 7/10

One of the few times he’s been outplayed in these playoffs. Didn’t have much to do for long stretches difficulty-wise as his defencemen were terrific at protecting the house. Stood out breaking up the Vegas forecheck with his passing behind the net. That goal by McNabb shouldn't go in based on the ridiculous standard he has set these playoffs. Simple as that.

DEFENCEMEN

Shea Weber – 8/10

One or two passing misfires. But all in all, another captain’s performance in his own end by the man-mountain. He’s playing with an intimidating level of anger right now. He’s even roughing up his own partners. Just ask Erik Gustafsson. Great stick in the first to cut off a point-blank chance from Pacioretty to Stone. Only one penalty kill, but did his job. Played assured even when dealing with Vegas pressure. Inspired confidence.

Ben Chiarot – 7/10

Played another very solid game, but the one flaw during the night came back to haunt his team in overtime. Handled players in front of the net well, had a good stick, killed plays along the boards. Led the blueline with five hits as well. But also tied for the team lead with five giveaways. Needed to chip the puck off the glass while being pressured on the winning goal but turned it over at the blueline. Decent. But…

Jeff Petry – 8/10

Could really use his shot right now. Jon Merrill was the only Habs defenseman to get a shot on goal. Had some decent chances to get one through, but passed on the opportunity due to his injury. Defensively, he was great. Just kept up with Vegas forwards attacking his zone. Passing was cautious and deferred to Edmundson more often than not to break the puck out. The one criticism of his game is the team looks completely different when he jumps into the rush. Although he can’t do much offensively, he needs to at least be a decoy and provide numbers going forward.

Joel Edmundson – 9/10

The Habs' best player last night. Tossed aside more than one Vegas forward driving the net off the rush. Killed the play along the boards. Passed the puck exceptionally well, most impressively with a long stretch pass that sprung Anderson for a great scoring chance. Felt the forecheck well and didn’t panic under pressure. Pinched in at the blueline exceptionally well in the first period. His stick was like a viper, snapping out to break up plays. Led the team in ice time. Continues to shine in the playoffs.

Jon Merrill – 6/10

Led the team with five blocked shots. The fact that he was the only defenceman who had a shot on goal is more of an indictment of the other blueliners rather than him. But, come on. Did a decent job playing the man along the boards and in front of his net. But moving the puck and clearing his zone was a chore. Got stuck out on the ice for too long in the build-up to the game-winner.

Erik Gustafsson – 5/10

Zeroes across the board on the scoresheet. His most noticeable contribution was getting shoved by Weber in the neutral zone after running into him at the red line. As always some difficult moments in his own end, which he survived. Nothing offensively, which is frustrating considering that’s his strength. Played only 7:29.

FORWARDS

Nick Suzuki – 8/10

No real moments of brilliance or creativity like we’ve been accustomed to seeing these playoffs. His chemistry with Caufield was just a little off last night. Had a decent chance in tight on the powerplay, but his stick snapped in half. Always in the right position defensively and his stick was constantly disruptive. Great pass to spring Byron for his goal. Best centreman on the ice for either team last night. Worst Hab in the dot. Seven hits as well.

Tyler Toffoli – 6/10

The entire line just seemed a little off and he seemed to consistently be behind the play. Had a couple of nice dangles in the offensive zone, but they came to nothing. Only one shot on goal is disappointing. Just a little late on the forecheck. Struggled to get into the game at times. It was his man McNabb who snuck down from the point for his game-tying goal.

Cole Caufield – 7/10

Had the best chances fall to him in the third period, but he couldn’t convert. Good defensive positioning led to his breakaway chance that he tried to fire five-hole on Lehner, but to no avail. Had another rebound fall to him on the right side of the Vegas goal, but he shot it into the side-netting. It felt like the puck was just a foot away from finding him all over the ice. Just couldn’t find enough opportunities to break the game open.

Phillip Danault – 7/10

Four shots on goal, but none were particularly threatening. As always, put in a shift defensively and as always did well. Continued to be very strong on the penalty kill. Tough night in the faceoff dot at 42 per cent. Did a great job mopping up any potential secondary opportunities in front of Price.

Brendan Gallagher – 7/10

His game stood out in a way it hasn’t in a long time. Like Perry, the puck seemed to be finding him all over the ice. Led the team with five shots on goal and, more importantly, looked like a threat to score with the puck on his stick. Had his legs going as well as his relentless motor. Made his presence felt in front of Lehner’s face more than once.

Artturi Lehkonen – 7/10

Was the forechecking catalyst for his line. Had four hits. Cycled the puck decently in the offensive zone. Always on his horse to get back and broke up more than one odd-man rush. Nothing that got you out of your seat. But continued to do the small things needed to win this time of year.

Jesperi Kotjaniemi – 7/10

Both he and his line’s most impactful night in these playoffs as a trio. Looked strong and energetic. Most importantly it looked like the line itself was gaining chemistry. Still not enough big-time chances for him to pounce upon. Would have liked to see him drive the net on his chance in the first but stayed wide and got a weak shot off. Really good defensively, which is why him losing his man in overtime in front of goal for the game-winner was such a bummer. Something to build on.

Josh Anderson – 8/10

10 hits. His best chance of the game was his cut to the inside and shot on Lehner on a 2-on-1 in the first, but the Vegas goalie got a piece of it with his shoulder. Much better in terms of keeping control of the puck in the opponents' end with his linemates. Still primarily trying to generate off the rush. A step in the right direction for the line as a whole.

Paul Byron – 8/10

Just the latest terrific shootout move from the speedster. What a play to take the pass from Suzuki off of his skate, up to his stick then hold off the pressure of Theodore and then roofing it top corner. More than once, he chased down a Vegas forward on the backcheck and made taking the puck from them seem pretty straightforward. Great on the penalty kill again. Easily the fastest player on the ice for the Canadiens.

Eric Staal – 6/10

Started brightly with his line dominating possession deep in the Vegas zone. Shielded the puck extremely well down low and kept the cycle going. Never really threatened with an offensive chance, although his jam play on a scramble almost came off if not for a diving Golden Knight defender spoiling the chance. His influence waned as the game wore on.

Corey Perry – 7/10

Was the MVP of the first period for the Canadiens. Had two unreal chances on backhand drives to the middle, but Vegas did just enough to put him off. Tried to set up Suzuki in the slot on the powerplay but the centreman’s snick snapped like a twig. Cycled the puck well in the o-zone, as always. The way the puck was following him it felt like he was destined to score last night. Just didn’t happen.

Joel Armia – 7/10

He caught the eye more than once, but just couldn’t make enough happen. Was physical along the boards. Didn’t force as many turnovers as we know he can. Penalty kill star. After dominating the first down low, his line faded into the periphery of the game the longer it went on. Still a positive showing from him.

COACH

Luke Richardson – 8/10

Certainly did a much better job getting the team prepared to start from the first minute of the game. Didn’t reinvent the wheel or anything. The team gave maximum effort and certainly deserved a win based on the balance of play. Chiarot said earlier in the day that the team would go through a wall for him. They’ll have to, to win these final three games of the series.