Eric Engels – sportsnet.ca
ROOKLYN, N.Y. — When a team comes back from a 3-1 deficit, as the Montreal Canadiens did in their 4-3 shootout win over the surging New York Islanders on Monday, it’s never just about one thing.
This game was no exception to that rule.
There were the key stops Antti Niemi made — a scrambling pad save on a second-period 2-on-1 chance for Mathew Barzal, then turning aside Anthony Beauvillier on a breakaway minutes later, and the five more he came up with in the shootout –
after allowing three goals on eight shots in the first period.
There were the big blocks Jeff Petry had in the dying moments to push the game into overtime, making up for a bad decision he made on a 2-on-1 chance Valtteri Filppula finished off to give the Islanders another lead less than two minutes after Jonathan Drouin got the Canadiens back to 1-1.
There was the goal Artturi Lehkonen scored in the third period to tie things up at 3-3, his first since opening night in Toronto. There was Montreal’s penalty kill, which didn’t allow a shot on its first three tests and came up huge in the final 25 seconds of regulation and first 1:35 of overtime. And there was Joel Armia sealing the deal in the shootout with a laser over Thomas Greiss’s glove after four of his teammates tried to deke and failed to score.
That was all equally important on this night, but it’s fair to say that without Max Domi scoring points 14 and 15 of his season in this one, the Canadiens would have left Barclays Center lamenting their first consecutive losses after falling to the Tampa Bay Lightning at the Bell Centre on Saturday.
The 23-year-old set up Drouin and also scored one of his own — a snapshot from the right faceoff circle that helped the Canadiens end a streak of 16 straight whiffs on the power play.
It’s also fair to say that without Domi, who’s now factored into 35 per cent of the team’s 43 goals, Montreal wouldn’t be keeping pace with the best teams in their division and enjoying an 8-4-2 start to the season.
You can’t help but wonder if that would be the case had Canadiens coach Claude Julien left him on the wing instead of converting him to centre when training camp opened in September.
“I think we needed that,” Julien said following Monday’s win. “He seems to enjoy covering a lot of ice. It’s just natural for him to skate the way he’s skating right now and I think part of that, too, by skating as much as he is right now is giving him the confidence to do what he’s doing. He’s shooting pucks, he’s attacking with speed, and he just seems extremely comfortable there.
“Did I know that was going to happen at the beginning of camp? Absolutely not. We’re like anyone else; we try things that we think might work and if they don’t work, we make a change. But so far that’s worked pretty good for us.”
That’s an understatement.
Domi’s performance at the position has almost completely changed the complexion of the team.
Drouin came to camp prepared to show that last season’s trial at centre wouldn’t define his career at the position. He had played in the middle in junior, played it a bit with the Tampa Bay Lightning prior to being traded to Montreal in the summer of 2017, and he felt he could do better than the 46 points and a minus-28 rating he posted in 77 games.
Julien knew it was an option to give Drouin that opportunity but he first wanted to find out whether or not Domi could handle the challenge.
He didn’t get a clear answer through exhibition, with Domi landing a five-game suspension for punching an unsuspecting Aaron Ekblad against the Florida Panthers in Montreal’s second pre-season game.
But when the regular season kicked off against the Maple Leafs, and Domi recorded his first two points of the season in a 3-2 overtime loss at Scotiabank Arena, there was hope he could thrive in the position.
With Phillip Danault prepared to handle all that comes with being the shutdown centre on the team, with 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi making the roster out of training camp and handling himself well on both sides of the puck from the pivot position, and with Matthew Peca and Tomas Plekanec adding depth up the middle, Domi’s emergence in his role has suddenly turned one of the most questionable centre lines in hockey into one to be reckoned with.