The Montreal Canadiens use the strategy that the LA Kings did in 2011-12, the year they fired their old coach, got a new one, and won their first Stanley Cup. That strategy, suggested by Terry Murray and perfected by his successor in the playoffs, was simple: score one goal, get a shutout courtesy of Jonathan Quick, and you’ll win every time. Or at least enough to be league champions when all’s done.
What’s surprising with Montreal coming into LA on Thursday night off a loss to Anaheim is that in their prior two games, they had scored just one goal. Actually, that’s not all that surprising. What is is the fact that they had scored fourteen in the three games prior to that. Because on the year, they had only 172 coming into the LA game.
The team below them in their division had 213. The other division leader in the East, the Rangers, had 197. And the opponent for the evening, the Kings, had 171.
So how come they are doing so well? Goals against. LA, for instance, had allowed 164. Tampa Bay, 171. New York, 155. And Montreal? 142. Nobody in the league comes anywhere close. The next best is Chicago at 152.
So what was the home team to think when they noticed that backup Dustin Tokarski was playing, he of the even-up 5-5-2 record and the 2.70GAA? That they might just have a chance to win, notching a second victory in a row after three straight losses.
They wasted no time in testing the kid. He was down 2-0 after a period after allowing goals shortly after the four and eight minute marks. And Montreal had not helped themselves, registering just two shots in the first period. They had a total of seven shots taken, blocked, and missed.
Meanwhile, the Kings had a total of 26 on thirteen shots.
That domination would not continue. The second period was played largely in the Kings’ end, and though there weren’t a ton of shots (8-7 in LA’s favor), the Canadiens scored two goals. Both happened when the defense was caught out of position.
The first saw Tom Gilbert come down the left boards, across the goal line to the front of the net, and tuck a puck in. The second had Subban way low in the LA zone, where he whipped a backhand pass to Plekanec, who did the same to Brendan Gallagher, who went across the crease the opposite way that Gilbert had and backhanded the puck over the prone, splits-position, Jonathan Quick.
Defensively, as I said, there was no excuse for either goal. On the first, nobody caught up with Gilbert low. In fact, no defenseman was within four feet of the red goal line. On the second, guys got turned around, and Jake Muzzin was caught out, his man behind him.
The play other than that was not flowing, and the action not all that exciting. Dustin Tokarski did attempt, unwittingly, to create some thrills, as every time he got a puck coming at him high, he seemed to bat it out of the air with his blocker and put it back into the slot.
Exceptions to the “not exciting” claim: first Marian Gaborik and later Jeff Carter had bursts in on goal alone, both down the left side and to the net. But Tokarski made a good save on Gaborik, and Carter didn’t really get off a shot. Other than that, the play was mostly choppy and imprecise, not a battle of giants so much as a battle of a couple of teams that were imitating a mediocre version of themselves.
Why would this be? Montreal was on the back end of a back-to-back, having lost in Anaheim Wednesday after losing to San Jose Monday, and the Kings had played in Edmonton Tuesday, a 5-2 win.
Note an irony with that pair of losses for Montreal. A few weeks ago, Ottawa made the same West Coast swing, and they went three-for-Cali. Now Montreal was in danger of going 0-for-Cali. Six points left untouched. The third period would be the difference, and the large-ish Montreal-biased crowd was hoping that their team would continue to show what they had in evening the contest at twos.
The Habs kept up their dominating ways, getting onto the puck more quickly than the Kings did and making sweeping passes around the Kings’ end boards. This resulted in a goal by Pacioretty, a puck swept in as the LA defensemen, Greene and Muzzin, chased.
It looked to be over, Montreal gaining a win at last and LA going down again, every game and point crucial for them with the playoffs in question. Then Lars Eller stupidly high-sticked Drew Doughty near the Montreal blueline. He went to the box, the goalie of LA shortly came out of the net, and with the extra man on, Marian Gaborik scored his second of the night and 19th on the year to tie it. Exactly 45 seconds remained.
The extra period produced nothing but one shot for LA, and the Kings went to the shootout. Not their favorite thing.
To this point this year, the team was 1-for-7 in skills contests. And over the past while, they were 0-for-22 on shootout attempts. But in a night of reversals, this too was upended. The Kings scored first—Gaborik again. The Habs’ Galchenyuk failed. The Kings scored again, Carter this time, and the Habs responded with one by Desharnais. So it was 2-1. Toffoli missed and Pacioretty scored to tie it after three rounds.
The final round saw Kopitar score and Lars Eller hit the post behind Quick, and the Kings squeaked out the second point.
The numbers do bear out LA’s superiority, 29 shots to 18, but they don’t tell the story of how easily the LA defense was fooled on the Habs’ goals. Both Muzzin and Gaborik had four shots for the home team. The faceoffs also went their way, but Montreal outhit the Kings 40-31, surprising when Dustin Brown often carries that load. He had none on the night, but Trevor Lewis had five. Recently traded Devante Smith-Pelly led his team with eight, which is one reason the Canadiens wanted to acquire him.
The Kings now face Pittsburgh, but they will be, like the Canadiens, on the back half of back-to-back games, playing in Anaheim tomorrow.
My new book, Facing Wayne Gretzky, is nicely reviewed in the March 9th edition of The Hockey News.