Montembeault cements his status as Canadiens' top goalie

Gives a performance for the ages in 4-3 shootout win over the imposing Rangers at the Bell Centre.

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Following his performance earlier this week at Dallas, Canadiens goaltender Samuel Montembeault arguably should have started last Thursday against Buffalo.

He didn’t and the Canadiens lost.

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However, his performance for the ages Saturday night against the New York Rangers, perhaps the NHL’s best team, shows there can be no disputing something that has become clear — Montembeault is the Canadiens’ first-string netminder, and the time has come for this team to end its ménage-à-trois between the pipes.

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“I think he (Montembeault) has had more starts than the other two,” head coach Martin St. Louis said, referring to Jake Allen and Cayden Primeau after Montreal’s scintillating and highly entertaining 4-3 shootout victory at the Bell Centre. “I’d say there’s some kind of separation there. There are things that progress throughout the season, and you see that now. He’s earning all the extra starts, so to speak, that he’s getting now that maybe he wasn’t getting early on.

“We’re going to keep managing that. It might not be the easiest situation to deal with, but I think we’ve done a great job with it.”

Cole Caufield scored the only goal in the shootout in the second round by beating Jonathan Quick with a low forehand shot to the glove side. But that was only a sidebar to Montembeault’s story.

For the second time this season, the Canadiens surrendered 48 shots. Montembeault stopped 45, for a save percentage of .938. That included 20 shots in the second period, when Montembeault had no chance at the two New York goals he allowed. He also stopped all 14 shots in the opening frame and four in overtime when, in the final minute alone, Montembeault stopped Mika Zibanejad twice, along with Alex Lafrenière and a blast from defenceman Jacob Trouba.

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Then, for good measure, he denied Artemi Panarin, Zibanejad and Lafrenière in the shootout. Montembeault was deservedly named the game’s first star. In 18 games this season, he has a 9-5-3 record, 2.93 average and .906 save percentage. He generally provides his team with a chance to win and was rewarded with a contract extension last month.

Allen is 4-8-2 with a 3.52 average and .900 save percentage, but has received limited offence when he has played, while Primeau is 4-4 with a 3.30 average and .898 save percentage.

“I just try to get ready when I get the call,” Montembeault diplomatically stated, while laughing. “We have three (coming games) in four nights. We have a couple of back-to-backs in the next couple of weeks. I’m sure I’ll get some action there.

“At the end, I knew I had to make those saves and, in the shootout, we got the win. The shootout isn’t my cup of tea, but I’m happy we got it done tonight.”

Following a lacklustre performance against the Sabres two nights earlier during an embarrassing 6-1 defeat, the Canadiens (17-17-5) were much more engaged against the Rangers (26-10-2), who lost for only the fourth time in their last 11 games. Montreal has defeated New York only three times in eight contests dating back to February 2020. And although the Rangers’ power play had been operating at a 30.4 per cent efficiency rate, the visitors failed to capitalize on three manpower advantages.

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The Canadiens jumped to a 3-0 lead before the game was 23 minutes old, only to eventually squander the lead, but they managed to persevere.

Brendan Gallagher opened the scoring at 11:37 of the first period, beating Quick high to the glove from the left-wing circle. It was Gallagher’s sixth goal this season, but his first since Nov. 11, ending a 24-game drought. It was only the ninth time this season Montreal has held the lead following the first period.

Sean Monahan, with his 10th goal, and Joel Armia, with his sixth — including his second in as many games — provided the Canadiens with what should have been a safe three-goal cushion after Montreal scoredon its opening two shots of the second period.

But the free-wheeling Rangers never quit.

Vincent Trocheck and Panarin, with his team-leading 25th goal, brought the visitors to within one before the second period ended, and before defenceman Adam Fox beat Montembeault from the point with a screen shot at 9:30 of the third.

“We had really good energy pretty much all night,” Gallagher said. “It was a good game. They pushed back. They played hard. I liked our response. And, obviously, our goaltender made some pretty good saves. Monty really stepped up and made some massive saves.

“He should feel great about himself. He played awesome. All of our goaltenders this year have been very good for us. We have a ton of confidence in these guys. Monty tonight had a season-high in saves and he earned every one of them. He stepped up at important times for us. He should feel very good about himself.”

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