Still Talkin’ Habs: Evans injury overshadows Habs mature display in 5-3 Game 1 win over Jets

In a split second, Jake Evans’ dream playoff moment turned into a nightmare.

Mark Scheifele’s predatory hit likely ended his series and marred a terrific Montreal Canadiens performance in a 5-3 win over the Winnipeg Jets to take a 1-0 series lead.

Call it a charge. Call it a headshot. Call it a reckless, disgusting and a gutless play from one of the most universally respected players in the league.

But what should be the overriding factor for the department of player safety to inform their decision on whether to suspend Scheifele, and for how long, is simple: his hit was intended to injure Evans.

Whether you’ve played contact hockey or not, we’ve all witnessed someone completely lose it on the ice.

There are multiple incidents before the ultimate moment of carnage, which are red flags.

They become pieces of evidence that provide a glimpse into the mind of a player and help determine whether an incident is intentional or not.

It started in the closing moments of the second period. Habs forward Corey Perry was back to his agitating best and engaged with Scheifele behind the Jets net, pulling his helmet off in the process.

The Jets centreman saw red immediately and tried to get at Perry. At the time, the response seemed like quite the overreaction to something the Canadiens forward has done more than a thousand times in his NHL career.

Fast forward to just under seven minutes into regulation. After another scrum, this time in front of the Habs net, Scheifele was grabbed from behind by Ben Chiarot.

Jets defenceman Logan Stanley had a hold of the Habs defenceman and pulled both Chiarot and Scheifele backward.

Chiarot didn’t let go and fell to the ice while still maintaining hold of Scheifele’s head.

The wires touched again for the Jets centreman and he gave his former teammate a punch to the face while he was on the ice.

An incredulous Scheifele was justly penalized for the incident. That appeared to be the end of it.

Now, his indefensible stupidity will likely cost the Jets dearly as their best centre will almost certainly be suspended, at the very least for Game 2.

From a Canadiens perspective, it robs them of the services of a player who was not only their most-used forward last night, but also a guy who transformed the makeup of their third line and turned it into an elite shutdown force.

“I think it’s disgusting,” said Jesperi Kotkaniemi postgame about the hit. “(Have) a little bit more respect for the players out there. I’m not saying anything more about that.”

“I mean, it was a dirty hit,” said a visibly frustrated Joel Edmundson postgame. “But the league’s going to take care of it. If he gets back in the series we’re going to make his life miserable, but I think the league is going to do a good job with that.”

Based on his unblemished rap sheet and the unpredictability of the NHL’s decisions on these plays, it’s hard to say but Edmundson will likely get his wish.

My guess is Scheifele will be suspended for either two or three games for that hit, which will be a huge blow for a Jets team already down a centreman with Paul Stastny missing last night’s game and with third line center Adam Lowry forced to miss large portions of the game with an injury.

Scheifele will just have to make sure he doesn’t find himself in the corner with Edmundson or Shea Weber when he does return, who looked ready to kill someone after the hit.

In the background of that moment was a hockey game that should encourage Habs fans everywhere that their team has a genuine chance to reach the playoff semifinals for the first time since 2014-15.

Nick Suzuki scored the sexiest playoff goal by a Montreal Canadien this century, displaying tremendous patience to outwait Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck on a 2-on-1 to then calmly tuck the puck past his outstretched pad.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi scored again to bring his playoff tally to eight in 17 games. Cole Caufield was particularly dangerous with the puck on his stick and well-positioned without it.

The Habs blueline combined for six points while the trio of Eric Staal, Joel Armia and Corey Perry provided the answer to the question: when have the Canadiens had a line that dominates the cycle down low?

Oh, and when the sloppy Jets generated their only two high danger scoring chances of the game per Natural Stat Trick, Carey Price was there to rob Mathieu Perreault and Kyle Connor in the slot.

Sure, the Habs didn’t make it easy on themselves as they failed to put the game well out of reach in the second period, but interim head coach Dominique Ducharme could not have been happier with his team’s start and their game as a whole.

That joy was quickly replaced with concern and anger after the Evans hit. From his first playoff goal to a sickening injury all in the blink of an eye.

Sports can be oh so cruel at times. Happy 25th birthday, Jake. Hopefully, we will see you out there again soon enough.

PLAYER RATINGS

GOALTENDER

Carey Price – 8/10

Lost his net just a bit on Forbort’s goal, but was still very good on a relatively quiet night for him. A terrific lateral movement to stop Scheifele in the first. Robbed Perreault with his glove on an odd-man rush in the second and flashed it again on Connor in the slot soon after. Solid and compared to his past performances, unspectacular.

DEFENCEMEN

Ben Chiarot – 7/10

Not particularly noticeable, but in a good way. His communication with Staal on Connor’s late goal could have been better. Picked up where he left off in Game 7 against the Leafs in terms of his passing. Rarely got caught in his own end for long stretches and made responsible choices with the puck on his stick. Most used Habs defenceman once again.

Shea Weber – 7/10

Deep internet dive: when was the last time you saw the man-mountain on a breakaway? I’ll wait. Deeper internet dive: when was the last time you saw the man-mountain try to pull off a deke on a breakaway? Looked more comfortable on the power play than he has in a while. Passing was accurate and killed the play well in his zone. Had the look of a crazed killer after Scheifele’s hit on Evans.

Jeff Petry – 8/10

What a pass to spring Weber for Gallagher’s goal. Even more beautiful was his slap pass to Kotkaniemi to get the Habs on the board with that coveted first goal. His pairing was the team’s best last night. Didn’t panic at all defending the rush and kept a good gap. Was in control running his wave of the power play. Screened Price on Forbort’s goal, but to be fair it was a perfect shot by the Jets defenceman. Impressive.

Joel Edmundson – 9/10

The Habs most consistent defenceman these playoffs likely had his best game as a member of the team. Tied with Weber in the lead for shots by blueliners with five. But it was his passing that shone through last night. He has always excelled at the short breakout passes to get out of his zone, but it was his craft pass to Perry in the Jets zone that gave him the space to find Staal for his goal. Took a half a second and found Suzuki with a terrific banked pass off the boards to spring him for his goal. Great first playoff game back in his home province.

Brett Kulak – 6/10

Back to playing less than 10 minutes, only by a couple of seconds. Was more willing to join the rush against the Maple Leafs. Four shots on goal is higher output than normal as well. Had to battle harder along the boards and take an extra step to cut off Dubois’ pass to Forbort on his goal. But didn’t look out of place. He’d be my choice to sit for Romanov in Game 2.

Erik Gustafsson – 5/10

This one played less than seven minutes. Deserves the rating for his really foolish back pass at the blueline that sprang Lowry on the breakaway for his goal. In his defence, he wasn’t the only one who was guilty of overpassing on the power play as both Caufield and Suzuki should have shot the puck before then. Power play looks much smoother when he’s on it. Just doesn’t have to overcomplicate his life out there.

FORWARDS

Philip Danault – 7/10

Looked fantastic on the penalty kill. Didn’t give the Jets' best players a sniff on the power play. Scheifele’s line was largely ineffective, but not sure if that was down to him or Winnipeg’s general sloppiness. Not exactly a standout offensively, but did do a solid job keeping hold of the puck in the offensive zone. Less than 50 per cent on faceoffs.

Jake Evans – 7/10

The Habs' most used forward. Heartbroken for him. To get knocked out by that Scheifele hit after scoring his first playoff goal into an empty net is cruel and unusual punishment. Should have probably scored earlier on a 2-on-1, but just fired it wide. The Habs' best penalty killer on the night; super aggressive, but never out of position. Constantly plays with the appropriate level of desperation. He will be missed.

Brendan Gallagher – 7/10

Probably the least noticeable member of his line until he popped up on the doorstep to push Weber’s rebound over the line for the eventual game-winner. Wasn’t his usual infuriating self in front of Hellebuyck, but still went to the front of the net. Still can’t find a consistently threatening role on the power play. But all in all, he was decent.

Nick Suzuki – 8/10

Put the slick in Slick Nick last night. Hang a picture of his goal in the Louvre. What a clever piece of skill and ingenuity to toe drag and pull that puck around Hellebuyck on the rush for his goal. Guilty of overpassing on the power play. Knocked down and got in the way of a bunch of passes that could have been threatening in his own zone. Led the team in the faceoff dot at 60 per cent. The Habs' best forward.

Tyler Toffoli – 6/10

Picked up an assist on Evans’ empty netter. Had a few choice words for Scheifele after he obliterated him. Took the puck right to the net more often than usual. Had one slot shot casually pushed aside by Hellebuyck. Seems like Caufield keeps trying to force things on him, but it hasn’t come off just yet. Wasn’t all that threatening for long stretches, but did do some hard work along the boards to spring his teammates for odd-man rushes.

Cole Caufield – 7/10

Shoot the bloody puck, son. He’s doing what all young players do, which is try and defer to the vets they’re playing with instead of taking the chances themselves. If he has the puck in the slot, he should shoot it. His only shot on goal was a 2-on-1 shot along the ice that Hellebuyck saved. Picked up a secondary assist on Suzuki’s goal. Was constantly around the puck both offensively and defensively, which was frustrating at times because the end product never came. But was in the right place at the right time often which should be encouraging for his coach.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 7/10

Only a confident Kotkaniemi puts that slap pass from Petry into the back of the net. Beat his coverage off the boards for good measure. Won the majority of the one-on-one battles he was involved in, especially down low in the offensive zone. Should have had better stick positioning on Forbort’s goal. Two phantom penalties called against him, especially his hit on Ehlers that was somehow roughing. Not great on faceoffs or the power play. But the kid just keeps on scoring.

Josh Anderson – 5/10

Morrissey stepped around him far too easily at the blueline in the build-up to Forbort’s goal. Strangely, the Habs least used forward which doesn’t happen often. But if he wasn’t picking up the puck in the neutral zone and driving towards the net he wasn’t doing much. Not as physical as usual. Had a spinning backhand close to the net saved by Hellebuyck. But his chances were few and far between.

Paul Byron – 6/10

Stood out in a big way on the penalty kill. Beat the Jets to lose pucks and skated it down the ice with control to waste even more time. At even strength, didn’t really get a chance to show off his speed, but still worked hard in all three zones. Real good on the forecheck as he should be.

Eric Staal – 7/10

He is tied for the team lead in points in the playoffs, like we all knew he would. Johnny-on-the-spot in front for his goal after some great work by Perry. He and his linemates dominated the Jets down low for long periods of time, protecting the puck and cycling it back repeatedly with little resistance from the Jets. 50 per cent on faceoffs.

Joel Armia – 7/10

Deserves a point for his work last night. Like the rest of the penalty killers, he wanted the puck more and worked hard to retrieve it. Robbed by Hellebuyck on a breakaway. His stick was a weapon in terms of puck retrieval. He and his linemates were a handful for the Jets defencemen in the offensive zone, holding onto the puck and not giving it up.

Corey Perry – 7/10

Great pass to Staal in front of the net for his goal. Took an elbow to the face from Stanley for his troubles. Most used Habs forward on the power play, which is kind of surprising. When it comes to cycling the puck, see Armia and Staal. Owned the Jets physically in the corners and behind the net. Played a simple, but effective game.

COACH

Dominique Ducharme – 8/10

His team getting out to their dominant start was the most impressive thing about last night’s performance. Owned the Jets the first 40 minutes. Score should have been 5-1 by then. As he did in Game 7 against the Leafs, liked the way he deployed his defencemen although did lean on the core four a bit too much in the third. His forward lines are all clicking at the moment. He’ll have a decision to make on Friday now with Evans out. If he’s good to go, just throw Lehkonen in that spot so as not to disrupt anything elsewhere in the lineup.  

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