While there are no moral victories in professional sports, the Canadiens, a team that’s expected to lose more often than it wins this season, has now played the defending Stanley Cup-champion Vegas Golden Knights tough over two games.
After losing 3-2 in a shootout on the road on Oct. 30, Montreal dropped another one-goal game, 6-5, Thursday night at the Bell Centre.
“I like our group and I’m confident in them,” captain Nick Suzuki said. “We know how to play teams hard. We’re always in games. Once we get that experience they have — a lot of their players have been through a lot — the sky’s the limit for us. We just have to keep working every day to get better.”
Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis, however, saw matters somewhat differently.
“In Vegas we deserved better,” he said. “Tonight we deserved what we got.”
St. Louis has a point after watching his team twice squander two-goal leads, including a 3-1 advantage in the second period — a wild 20 minutes during which Montreal was outscored 4-2 and provided the Golden Knights with a life, relinquishing a short-handed goal less than three minutes into the frame.
Suzuki had a glorious scoring opportunity from the side of goaltender Adin Hill in the dying seconds, that close to sending the game to overtime.
Brett Howden, Brayden McNabb, Jonathan Marchessault, Sean Theodore, Jack Eichel and Mark Stone, with the winner, replied for Vegas. Both Eichel and Stone, Vegas’s captain, scored late power-play goals after Brendan Gallagher took a double-minor for high-sticking Pavel Dorofeyev. Howden’s goal came with Stone serving a tripping minor. Theodore had a four-point night, while Stone and Eichel each added two assists. Stone now has 11 goals and 23 points in 31 career games against Montreal.
Vegas, which had lost three of its last four and was coming off a 3-0 shutout defeat at Washington on Tuesday, went 3-for-7 on the power play, improving its record to 13-3-1. The Golden Knights are first in the Pacific Division and appear serious about defending their championship.
“The score was pretty tight at the end, but I don’t think we played well enough to beat that team,” Suzuki said. “We kept shooting ourselves in the foot, turning the puck over a lot in the first period. You can’t do that against a team like that. They took full advantage. They just didn’t score in the first.
“They won the Cup for a reason.”
Cayden Primeau, starting in net for the first time since an overtime victory at Detroit last Thursday, faced a barrage of shots and made many difficult stops to keep the Canadiens in the game. But the six goals he surrendered won’t look good on his resumé, combined with the .857 save percentage.
“Right now it’s easy to look at the scoreboard and get negative,” Primeau said. “They’re a really good offensive team. Their power play is really good. They move the puck well. I knew they were going to give a push. It’s hockey. It’s a fast game and things change in an instant.”
Primeau called it an exciting challenge to face Vegas. “The scoreboard doesn’t do justice to the way I felt.”
While Gallagher, who wasn’t made available to the media, obviously wasn’t deliberately attempting to injure Dorofeyev, it nonetheless marked the second consecutive game in which he took a late penalty. And on this night, it proved costly.
Meanwhile, defenceman Arber Xhekaj didn’t return for the third period after taking a hit from Ivan Barbashev to his left shoulder. Xhekaj had season-ending surgery on his right shoulder last February.
The Canadiens now embark on a five-game road trip, beginning Saturday night at Boston.
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