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MTL@BOS: Finding "Niem-o"

Antti Niemi made a career-high 48 saves, but lost his shutout bid with just minutes to go on Saturday in Boston

by Dan Braverman @CanadiensMTL /

BOSTON - The Canadiens knew they'd be in for a challenge on Saturday. Not only were they playing their second game in two nights, but they were doing so two hours earlier than usual against a team that has lost only five times in regulation in 2018.

And yet the Habs scored first, on a quick snapshot by Brendan Gallagher - the second time in a row he had opened the scoring - and staved off a Bruins onslaught that grew and grew as the minutes wore on, protecting a 1-0 lead almost right through to the end of the game.

Video: MTL@BOS: Gallagher picks off pass, snaps shot home

There is one man in particular who deserves a great deal of thanks for the Canadiens holding onto that lead as far as they did: 34-year-old netminder Antti Niemi.

The Finnish backstop, acquired off waivers in November, made a career-high 48 saves against a hungry Boston team, helping his fellow Habs kill off all but one penalty and keeping the visitors ahead for 57:15 of hockey before Jake DeBrusk tied it on a late power play. Brad Marchand would find twine in overtime to seal the deal for the Bruins. 

Ask anyone in the room, and they'd all tell you Niemi deserved a better fate.

"He was awesome tonight. We were playing two games in 24 hours here. As the game went on, you could see the fatigue setting in, and he made save after save," said Gallagher, the goal-scorer. "It's too bad we couldn't get a win for him.

"He deserved a better fate. It's too bad we weren't able to come away with a win. [...] That's what he's done all year for us since we picked him up. He's played in some tough road buildings, some big games for us."

Video: Gallagher on an excellent performance by Niemi

Niemi was a mere 2:45 away from his first shutout since the 2015-16 season - when he was a member of the Dallas Stars - but at the end of the day, the Canadiens were not willing to fall back on their tough travel schedule as an excuse for not seeing things all the way through.

"Whether fatigue or anything was a factor, it doesn't change our mindset; we have to get the job done," explained Jeff Petry, who led all Habs defensemen with 22:29 of ice time and finished with three hits, a shot, and an even differential. "The more penalties you take, the greater chance they're going to get one. They were able to capitalize on their last one tonight."

Video: Jeff Petry on the loss to the Bruins

Although the Canadiens weren't playing spoilers against the Bruins like they did the night before with the Islanders, the atmosphere in the building was still every bit as befitting of the classic Montreal-Boston rivalry.

"It doesn't matter where or when you're playing, but especially when you come into Boston... it's a fun game. It's too bad we weren't able to come away with a win," lamented Gallagher, who extended his points streak to three games. "The battle, the compete was there. But they started to really take over the game about halfway through. We had a couple of chances to extend the lead; their goalie made some saves, but for the most part, Niem-o made save after save to keep us ahead. Then, we gave up the late goal and then the overtime goal."

With the Canadiens losing in overtime, they extended their collective streak as well - they have now earned at least a point in each of their last seven games - and head coach Claude Julien reaffirmed that the trend is solid evidence his club is on the up and up.

Video: Claude Julien's postgame press conference @ BOS

"I think so. When you talk about our roster, we have a lot of young guys in there. They're battling, and we're finding ways to get points. I think we're growing as a team. We still have a long ways to go, but at least we're going in the right direction and it's not the other way around," described Julien of a Canadiens team that hasn't lost in regulation in two weeks. "Those are all encouraging signs. We just have to stick with it here and keep encouraging our players to work hard, compete hard, and to continue to try and pick up some wins here - and some confidence."

With four games to go on their long road trip, Julien is surely hoping his troops keep heading in the same direction before they head home.

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