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Takeaways: Canadiens put forth full-throttle effort in must-win game

Sportsnet logo Sportsnet 2019-03-20 Eric Engels

(Video provided by CBC)

Big win? You bet. Try monumental.

After dropping two games in a row and falling three points behind the Columbus Blue Jackets in the race for the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference, the Montreal Canadiens came to a hostile rink in Philadelphia to face a Flyers team that’s been among the eight best in the NHL since the beginning of 2019. A Flyers team that had pulled to within three points of the Canadiens with wins in six of their last ten games. A Flyers team with its season on the line.

Earlier in the day, Canadiens coach Claude Julien was asked about his team’s approach to this all-important match up.

“It’s a game we have to win. It’s as simple as that. We have to bring our best tonight,” Julien said. “As a coach, that’s all you can ask from your players. You want them to give their best effort possible and hope that it leads to a win. We have to stay positive. We want to end the night with a big smile.”

Mission accomplished. The Canadiens put in a desperate effort and largely dominated the Flyers to all but knock them out of the playoff race and keep their own hopes alive. It was a full-team effort. A resilient, full-throttle, empty-the-tank type of effort.

We’ll see if Montreal can build on it.

But first, let’s get to some takeaways from the game.

Brendan Gallagher leads, Canadiens follow

True to the letter he wears on his uniform as Canadiens assistant captain, Brendan Gallagher brought one of his best efforts of the season to Philadelphia.

His reward? A goal to put the Canadiens up 1-0 in the 19th minute of a first period they dominated.

It was Gallagher’s first goal in five games and the 31st of his season, which tied his career high in that category. He was the one who started the play by forcing a Shayne Gostisbehere turnover, then he finished it by driving to the middle of the slot and waiting for a pass that he ended up burying through goaltender Carter Hart’s legs.

Consider it one of many big plays Gallagher made in the game, notching four shots on net and seven attempts in total. He was omnipresent in the offensive zone, manufacturing turnovers and forcing his way to the net. And the Canadiens followed his lead.

In the fifth minute of the second period, Andrew Shaw edged Sean Couturier in the faceoff circle, then beat him to the net. Both Shaw and Artturi Lehkonen set up screens in front of Hart, and Max Domi gave Shea Weber a perfect one-timer pass to capitalize on to make it 2-0.

What happened after Philadelphia scored on the power play with 11:18 to play in the third period was the key to the win for the Canadiens; a bounce-back shift from Domi, Shaw, and who else? Gallagher. They rocked the Flyers back on their heels and never looked back.

It was with 1:05 left that Domi deposited his 25th goal of the season into an empty net.

Canadiens got back to their speed game

It started in the first period, when the Canadiens held a considerable territorial advantage.

The defence pairing of Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak led a rush and ended up as the deepest Canadiens players in the offensive zone. They were two of six Montreal defencemen engaged up the ice all night long and they were able to play that aggressively because they had constant back-pressure from their forwards.

At one point in the second period, Kulak stepped up at his own blue line and got walked around by Couturier for an odd-man rush, but Gallagher cut Couturier off on the backcheck and turned the play the other way. That’s the type of commitment that’s been missing of late with the Canadiens sputtering to 11 losses in 17 games prior to this one.

It also made goaltender Carey Price‘s night an easier one.

"I thought our reloads were really good, our back-pressure was really great," said Price afterwards. "If we play that type of hockey on both sides of the puck like we did tonight, I think we’ll be successful more often than not."

Jesperi Kotkaniemi responded

The 18-year-old may not have hit the scoresheet, but he was a threat on most of his 14 shifts in the game.

Kotkaniemi was also strong in his own end, breaking up several passes and clearing the zone on multiple occasions.

He had been reduced to just two shifts in the third period of a 2-0 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks on Saturday. When asked to explain that decision, Julien said he had left his man unmarked on two or three occasions.

On Monday, Julien said benching Kotkaniemi was a decision he had to make and that he had no concerns about hurting the player’s confidence with the move.

"Geez, he’s 18 years old," said Julien. There’s times he’s going to have some struggles. You know what? I’ve got to do what’s best for the team first and foremost. If I don’t bench him and he ends up costing us a goal or a game … Let’s say that happens and we don’t make the playoffs; are we going to say, ‘Oh, didn’t make the playoffs, but Kotkaniemi kept playing?’ We’ve got to balance things out. You do what you have to do to win a hockey game.

"The 18-year-old kid is going to be an unbelievable player for this organization for many years to come," Julien added. "It’s called learning to play the game at a young age and that’s part of getting some experience and growing up. We didn’t do anything wrong. I don’t think he’s discouraged, I don’t think we hurt his development. It’s just one of those situations where we’re going to sit down with him and we’re going to show him the areas he’s got to get better at and make him a better player. Nothing more than that."

The kid responded well, coming oh-so-close to his first road-goal of the season on a tantalizing rush that Hart made a good save on.

Kotkaniemi finished the night with three shots on net and 50 per cent of his faceoffs won against the best faceoff team in the league. He played just under 13 minutes.

Watching the out-of-town scoreboard

While the Canadiens were putting a bow on their 3-1 win over the Flyers, the Carolina Hurricanes—who started the night four points up in the standings—scored a goal late in the third period of the their game against the Pittsburgh Penguins before prevailing 3-2 in a shootout.

Julien in his post-game availability on if he was paying attention to the out-of-town scoreboard:

"Not during the game … You gotta take care of your own stuff first, then you hope you can get a break here or there. But if you don’t take care of your stuff, it doesn’t matter what happens."

As of this writing, the Blue Jackets trailed 3-1 to the Calgary Flames halfway through their game.

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