Still Talkin’ Habs: Character fuels Canadiens 3-2 comeback OT win over Oilers

Montreal Canadiens' Eric Staal, right, celebrates his winning goal with teammate Shea Weber during overtime in NHL hockey action against the Edmonton Oilers, in Montreal on Monday, April 5, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

The Montreal Canadiens refused to roll over and die as they battled back from a 2-0 deficit in the third period to beat the Edmonton Oilers 3-2 in overtime at the Bell Centre last night.

The stars aligned for newcomer Eric Staal as his overtime game-winner capped a dream debut and was the exclamation point on a performance by the home team that showed the resilience and mental fortitude needed to qualify for the playoffs.

That’s not to say that the Habs have struggled of late. For the first time since the start of their season, the Canadiens have strung together a positive run of results, winning four of their last five games. They’ve separated themselves from the back of the pack in the NHL’s North division and have a comfortable eight-point lead over both the Canucks and Flames with two and five games in hand on those opponents respectively. In fact, the Habs continued to impress with another very solid hockey game last night.

They certainly didn’t deserve to be staring down the barrel of a two-goal deficit going into the third period.

Many might just look back on last night as a springboard for the Canadiens' future success this season because the character the team showed last night can act as a reference point for overcoming struggles going forward.

It started with the team losing their heart and soul. Brendan Gallagher was forced to leave the game and will be out indefinitely after suffering a broken thumb in the first period after getting hit by an Alexander Romanov slap shot. Gallagher has so often been the catalyst and driving force for his team through good times and bad. Now the Habs had to beat a highly motivated Oilers team without their most courageous player.

No one was as focused on beating the Canadiens like goaltender Mike Smith, who was terrific last night. He repeatedly stymied the Habs, keeping them off the scoreboard for 40 minutes while also neutralizing their forecheck with his exceptional puck handling. Facing a goaltender in fine form can be such a demoralizing hurdle to overcome and the Canadiens were surely no different last night.

On top of Edmonton’s goaltending, a problem from the past re-emerged last night. The Habs surrendered both of their goals in the final minute of the period, a major flaw of the team last season. The timing of those sucker punches could have caused the Canadiens to shrink into the background of the contest. It might have given Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl the chance to assume control of the game. It probably should have sapped the energy and confidence out of the group.

But it didn’t.

The undeterred Habs simply continued to play their game. And the results that had been lacking the first two periods finally bore fruit in the third period and overtime. That is the lesson from last night that the Canadiens can fall back on through the trials and tribulations of the final 22 games of their season. No matter what happens, if they commit to trusting their style of play, they will more often than not come out on the winning side.

Saying it is one thing. Doing it is a more impactful thing altogether.

“That’s a character win,” acknowledged Corey Perry post-game. “I thought we were playing well. I mean, you give up two late goals in both periods that can deflate you. But I thought we responded the right way.”

That response was capped by former Habs killer-turned-hero Eric Staal, who wrapped up a decent debut with a moment that fans will remember no matter how the rest of his Canadiens career turns out. And with his goal he exorcised another of the team’s demons, earning the club their first overtime victory this season.

“I could feel the energy through the TV screens,” said a grinning Staal following his game-winner. “I wish (the Bell Centre) was full because I know what this place is like when it’s full, especially in that type of moment. 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 who can be difference-makers here.”

After that victory, the good vibes flowing throughout the locker room can only be a positive going forward. Now the Canadiens have something tangible to believe in whenever the going gets rough. Whether it be a shift, a period or a couple of games. The comeback win over the Oilers on April 5th could prove to be much more important in mid-May and beyond.

PLAYER RATINGS

Goaltender

Carey Price – 9/10

The Canadiens most important player rebounded emphatically after a tough game against the Senators. Smith’s exploits at the other end of the ice seemed to inspire the Habs goaltender to raise his game. Did his best work in the second period with the highlight being a game saver on Alex Chiasson with a two-pad stack. Hopefully he’s okay as Ducharme said post-game he’s being evaluated for a couple of knocks.

Defencemen

Shea Weber – 7/10

Struggled early but grew into the game and like most of his teammates was solid in the third. Didn’t get hemmed into his zone repeatedly which indicates he was making smart decisions with the puck. Miscommunication with Drouin for the Oilers openers but that was more on the winger.

Even made some smart passes in the offensive zone. Solid.
 

Joel Edmundson – 6/10

A less convincing game from Weber’s partner. His passing was not at the level we’ve seen from him of late. His penalty led to Nurse’s goal, which could’ve been a back-breaker on another night.

Physically dominated by Khara in the build-up to Shore’s goal. Led the blueline with three giveaways. Not awful but he’s had better nights.

 

Jeff Petry – 8/10

Rebounded in a big way from his worst game of the season.

Matched up against McDavid and continued to limit the best player in the world. Not a particularly noticeable game offensively, although he did walk the line effectively more than once. Controlled possession so well in overtime, where he did his best work.

Picked up an assist on Staal’s game-winner.

 

Brett Kulak – 7/10

Played with a lot of confidence and was rewarded with more ice time than usual by his head coach. Not as bold in terms of his roving ability but made some smart plays in the neutral zone to allow his forwards to enter with speed and as always was eager to drive play himself. It’s games like last night that convince most that he can continue to be trusted in a top-four role.
 

Alexander Romanov – 7/10

Felt like a bit of a turning point for him in terms of his confidence with his teammates. Demanded the puck multiple times and even directed traffic and play, which is impressive for a rookie without a clear grasp of the language yet.

Felled Chiasson with a hit just as the Oilers forward was trying to punish him on the forecheck. Best offensive chance of the night was an odd-man rush which he rifled towards the top corner but was fought off by Smith. His slapshot did injure Gallagher though.

 

Victor Mete – 7/10

Did a bit of a double-take when his ice time indicated he played just over 13 minutes. Figured he’d played more. Noticeable in the best of ways. Continued to show he now knows how to win one-on-one battles.

Fearless driving the play into the offensive zone at even strength. Trusted by his coach in overtime. Rewarded him with controlled puck possession and showed off his speed with more room to roam. The chemistry he continues to build with Romanov is encouraging.

 

Forwards

Phillip Danault – 8/10

Call this the Carbonneau score. Might just be earning his contractual demands with the way he’s done a number on McDavid this season. Held him pointless again. One blemish on his night was losing the draw that led to Nurse’s goal. Wasn’t exactly a difference-maker offensively but that wasn’t what he was asked to do last night. The lone centreman to go less than 50 per cent on draws. Didn’t get victimized in overtime. Most used forward.

 

Tomas Tatar – 7/10

What a shot from him to even things up 2-2 in the third. It was going to take a perfect shot to beat Smith the way he was playing and that’s what he delivered. Controlled the puck well when he was out there but due to Gallagher’s injury got a little lost in the shuffle and ended the game as the least used forward. But it’s not how many minutes you play, it’s how you use them.

 

Brendan Gallagher – N/A

Might have to get him some titanium gloves after the latest injury to his hands. A fractured thumb will most likely have him out until the playoffs. The plus is that he’ll still be in skating shape. His teammates rallied to get him the victory.

 

Nick Suzuki – 6/10

He was just okay last night. Not as much as a difference-maker as most would have hoped. Did improve in faceoffs to get above 50 per cent. And picked up a secondary assist on Anderson’s opener. Smart defensively but a quiet night offensively.

 

Josh Anderson – 9/10

The Canadiens most consistent forward by a country mile. Had that extra half step in his skating stride last night. Was a problem on numerous occasions driving towards the Oilers net. Based on his game, deserved more than just one goal. But his marker did spark the comeback early in the third. He and Perry seem to be developing some nice chemistry on the wings. Not particularly physical last night but used his superior speed to make some important defensive plays, especially in overtime.

 

Corey Perry – 8/10

Really took up the mantle of tone-setter after Gallagher left due to injury. His smart play along the boards and pass to Anderson set up the first goal. Made himself a nuisance in front of Smith more than once. Stands out because he dominates the boards so well. On pace for 41 points, pro-rated of course. Not too shabby for 750k. He’ll have to be even more of a nuisance in front now that Gallagher is out.

 

Eric Staal – 7/10

Looked a step off the pace for two out of the three periods. Understandable considering his age and a week off in quarantine. But if the Canadiens expected a smart, big centreman capable of winning faceoffs, that’s exactly what they got in his debut: 78 per cent in the dot. Won’t lie, didn’t really understand why he was out there in overtime.

Rewarded his coach with an inch-perfect shot far side for the game-winner. Confidence builder. And hey, he actually won a game. So long, Buffalo.

 

Jonathan Drouin – 6/10

Back to back below-par games from him, which hasn’t happened a lot this season. Still skating well but less involved physically than he has been. Didn’t get a chance to show his prowess on the powerplay as both of them were wiped out due to the Canadiens own penalties. Didn’t cost his team but has a lot more to give than what he showed last night.

 

Tyler Toffoli – 6/10

Had some decent half-chances in the first period but faded as the game went on. Skated and battled better than he did on Saturday night. Created a couple of turnovers in the offensive zone. But didn’t carve out any threatening moments to trouble the Oilers goal. All good, he can’t do it every night. Picked up an assist on Staal’s winner.

 

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 7/10

We’re watching him learn that he can physically dominate the opposition in one-on-one battles. No shots on goal is a bit of a worry. But his line was the Canadiens best early in the first and he drove play in those moments. Missed a sure goal when he fired the puck over the net early. A beast in the faceoff circle last night. Took a couple of shifts on the wing after Gallagher went out and didn’t look out of place. Raised his level in the third. Tied for the lead in hits amongst forwards.

 

Paul Byron – 7/10

Tied for the team lead in hits amongst forwards.

Made Tatar’s tying goal happen with a great stick to turn the puck over in the offensive zone. Stood out in overtime with his speed both offensively and defensively. Could have ended the game in OT if not for a great stick save by Smith. Led the team in takeaways. His chemistry with Kotkaniemi and Lehkonen is uncanny.

 

Artturi Lehkonen – 6/10

Led the forwards in shots on goal. Absolutely robbed by Smith’s save with the paddle early in the first. Usually a forechecking demon, but not necessarily so last night. Couldn’t really find a home on a line during the shuffle that followed Gallagher’s injury. Faded into obscurity the more the game went on.

 

Coach

Dominique Ducharme – 9/10

He knows his team better than us.

Understood his reasoning for placing Kotkaniemi with Byron and Lehkonen and that worked like a charm when they were together. Thought he could’ve swapped the two young centermen going into the third. Then Suzuki assisted Anderson’s goal. Couldn’t understand why Staal was out there in overtime.

Then he scored the game-winner.

The man knows his team and it showed last night. Add the character component to the win and the coach looked very good coming out of that victory.  

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