The Montreal Canadiens travelled south to face the Florida Panthers, hoping to erase the sour taste in their mouth following a listless effort against the Tampa Bay Lightning the previous night.
It was an important game in more ways than one, seeing as the Habs currently own two 1st-round picks in the upcoming Draft, including Florida’s.
The Canadiens put together a much better effort than their previous outing, but ultimately fell 7-2 due to some shoddy special teams work.
Unlike most nights, it wasn’t the power play that let them down, but rather their penalty kill.
The Canadiens allowed three power-play goals against for the third time in December, ultimately costing them a chance to leave Florida with a modicum of momentum.
There were some bright spots for the Habs, however. Let’s jump right into it.
X Marks The Spot
There are few better stories in the NHL at the moment than the ascension of the Hulk-like defender known as Arber Xhekaj.
Not only is he one of the toughest fighters in the league, but he also happens to lead all rookie defenders in goals, finding the back of the net five times this season, including his power play blast that put the Canadiens on the board in the first period.
Yes, you read that right, the Canadiens scored a power-play goal for the first time since the fall of the Soviet Union (citation needed).
It’s also worth celebrating the fact that Xhekaj ranks among the top-10 rookie players in goal scoring this season, which includes forwards as well as defencemen.
As it stands, he’s the only defender in the top 10.
But his story doesn’t just start and finish with heavy fists and goal-scoring gifts.
Xhekaj has quickly established himself as a very useful player in transition, a significant boon for the Canadiens this season. In many ways, this is Arber Xhekaj’s world. We’re just living in it.
Xhekaj’s goal tonight, what a snipe pic.twitter.com/IytDMRiD2V
— Habs Fan TV (@habsfantv_) December 30, 2022
Head coach Martin St-Louis made some curious decisions of late, but as has been the case throughout the season, he quickly came to his senses.
Rather than putting Joel Armia on the top line, St-Louis decided to return to the only line combination that seems to work this season: Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Kirby Dach.
In addition, he gave Juraj Slafkovsky a promotion to the top six, and the results were very encouraging.
Slafkovsky controlled over 60 percent of the shots playing alongside a re-invigorated Brendan Gallagher and Christian Dvorak.
A SECOND POWER PLAY GOAL? IN THIS ECONOMY?
The Canadiens scored a second power-play goal in this game.
Right now you’re probably double-checking the NHL’s website to make sure it’s accurate information, and that’s very fair.
I’ll give you a minute to verify this questionable information.
See? I wasn’t lying.
It was Josh Anderson’s ninth goal of the season and was a direct result of yet another great play by Xhekaj, the seventh assist of his rookie campaign.
— nopClips (@nopClips) December 30, 2022
The Canadiens are back in action on New Year’s eve, facing the Capitals in Washington. The puck drop is scheduled for 4 PM ET.