DETROIT – The Red Wings and the Montreal Canadiens – two of the top clubs in the Atlantic Division – squared off Monday in a classic grudge match with some Original Six favor added just to spice things up at Joe Louis Arena.
“Yeah, it definitely felt like a playoff,” Wings goalie Jimmy Howard said. “There was no room. It was tough to get to both nets, and when you got to the nets both guys were there to make the saves. So it was a lot of fun.”
However, the enjoyment for the Red Wings left the building when the Canadiens capitalized on a late turnover, which allowed Tomas Plekanec to break a scoreless deadlock with 2 ½ minutes left in regulation.
The Canadiens, who lead the division, as well as the Eastern Conference, added an empty-net goal by Max Pacioretty with 10 seconds left to solidify their 2-0 win, while handing the Wings their second shutout loss of the season.
Canadiens goalie Carey Price made 25 saves to earn his fifth shutout of the season.
Meanwhile, Jimmy Howard, who made his second start since returning from a groin injury, looked extremely sharp at the other end, stopping 27 of 28 shots.
“He’s been out for a long time,” forward Gustav Nyquist said. “It’s great to have him back and obviously he was really good tonight. I thought there were two good goaltenders going up against each other. Obviously, Price is the best goalie in the league the way he plays the puck and Howie did a great job today. At the end it was just that one goal. Obviously, that wasn’t Howie’s fault.”
Howard didn’t see much on the first goal as he was screened in front of his own defenseman. Howard made the initial blocker save on Pacioretty’s 32-foot slap shot, but as the puck bounced off the half wall, Plekanec out-raced three Wings to it inside the blue line. The Canadiens’ center was given a glorious chance when Pavel Datsyuk fell down on the play. Plekanec then used Niklas Kronwall as a screen before whistling a 30-footer that sailed passed Howard and caromed off the far post and into the net with 2:30 left in the third period.
“It’s unfortunate (Datsyuk) just blew a wheel there and their guy made a great pass to Plekanec and then he did a great job of using Kronner as a screen,” Howard said. “It also helps that he had Pacioretty off to the side. He had options and he put it post and in. It’s tough for any guy in the league to stop.”
For Howard, who missed five weeks with a slightly torn groin muscle, he feels like the rhythm that he had prior to the injury is returning quickly.
“I felt really good, like I said the other night,” said Howard, who expects to start the team’s next game Wednesday in Chicago. “Halfway through the game (Saturday) I started feeling more and more at home out there and it transferred over to tonight and hopefully it transfers even more into Chicago.”
The league’s stingiest team to score on, the Canadiens didn’t give the Red Wings much room, if any, to operate in the offensive zone. Montreal blocked 19 shots and gave Price plenty of room in front to see shots. There’s no wonder they’re allowing the fewest goals (122) in the league this season.
“I think that’s what the new style of game is today. A lot of people are blocking shots and it’s harder and harder to get it through,” Nyquist said. “It’s just something you gotta work on to get those pucks through.”
The Canadiens’ opportunistic defense led to a few early scoring chances, as well, but none better than the one Brandon Prust created for himself midway through the second. The Canadiens’ forward picked Brendan Smith’s pocket at the Wings’ blue line and dashed in alone on Howard, who was forced to make a big save to keep the game scoreless.
“I thought it was good for Howie,” coach Mike Babcock said. “Had some rubber last game, more than I would like and then he had some saves he would normally have today. I thought he played good today.”
It’s possible that the Wings and Canadiens could face-off in the first-round of the playoffs. Should that occur it would be for the first time since 1978.
The Red Wings have a combined 5-6-2 record against the top-four teams in the two conferences this season. That includes a 0-3-2 mark against Montreal and Tampa Bay, two likely first-round opponents.
“Two good teams that are trying to get into the playoffs and secure home ice,” Nyquist said. “But this is a team we’re chasing and it was tough to lose the two points.”
These teams also will meet for the fourth and final time when the Wings travel to Montreal’s Bell Centre in the final week of the regular season, on April 9.