It was the game Josh Anderson promised his team would play and the one he helped them deliver, with the most important goal coming off his stick just 11 seconds after Connor McDavid planted a seed of doubt with a beautiful goal of his own.
Anderson added another one for good measure and was a broken stick away from a hat-trick into an empty net, but his leadership was apparent even before he came up with the most crucial plays in this 4-3 win for the Montreal Canadiens over the Edmonton Oilers.
It was Anderson who said this prior to the game: “I think our battle level has to come up a little bit and we’ve got to be more hungry, because we know what’s at stake here and it’s getting into the last part of the season with a certain amount of games left and we’ve got to start playing playoff hockey now. We can’t wait any longer.”
It was also Anderson who set the tone in warmup, serving notice to Alex Chiasson that he’d have to answer for the hit that concussed Carey Price in Monday’s 4-1 loss to the Oilers.
The Canadiens responded with a dominant first period, over the course of which Corey Perry fought Chiasson and Artturi Lehkonen put the team up by a goal. They out-shot the Oilers 14-3 and registered 21 hits.
It was Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi driving Josh Archibald into the Montreal bench early on, and Kotkaniemi setting up the play that Lehkonen capitalized on.
The 20-year-old Finn, who had a coming-out party of sorts in last year’s playoffs, was a driver in this game. So was Lehkonen, who has had another gear in the most important games throughout his professional career, extending back to his days in Sweden, where he broke Daniel Alfredsson’s scoring record in a championship run with the Frolunda Lions in 2016.
Paul Byron had seven hits before two periods were played and Ben Chiarot had nine, including a couple of vicious ones that clearly unsettled Oilers superstar Leon Draisaitl. Playoff-type players doing playoff-type things.
And then there was Shea Weber. The Canadiens captain, who’s struggled of late, was asked about his play on Tuesday and declined to discuss it, saying the focus should be on the team.
Amidst the noise surrounding his game and the criticism levied at his handling of Tuesday’s press conference, Weber went out and did his talking on the ice in a game that demanded him to.
“Sometimes you just gotta deal with it and come out and respond the right way and that’s the type of leader that Webs is for us,” said Anderson. “We all know what’s at stake and sometimes when you don’t have your best games you kind of leave the outside noise to itself and you go out there and play your game and you just keep grinding away and good things are going to happen.
“We know Shea’s a big part of our team, we all know that, and he’s such a good captain and leader, so we knew he was going to put in a good effort tonight and he played unbelievable.”
But no one played better than Anderson, who scored Goals 16 and 17 of the season to bookend Tyler Toffoli’s 22nd.
If his game-winner was a determined effort in front of the net to give Montreal a 4-1 lead 15:03 into the third, his goal to make it 2-1 3:20 into the second period was an absolutely desperate one.
The Canadiens were leading the Oilers 1-0 when Connor McDavid broke free and tied the game with a forehand-backhand-forehand deke Jake Allen had no chance on. It was a play that could’ve deepened the fragility the Canadiens had displayed in blowing a third-period lead to the Oilers on Monday en route to losing for the seventh time in their last 10 games, but Anderson refused to let that happen.
Off the next faceoff he curled through the neutral zone, picked up the puck, drove to the outside and dropped his shoulder to leverage Adam Larsson on his way to Mike Smith’s crease. A quick backhand-to-forehand move enabled him to beat Smith on the short side, and he gave the Canadiens a lift they desperately needed.
“The way we reacted, and Andy’s goal right after, I think it was just the mindset of our team tonight,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “It felt right for the guys and obviously it brought some positive.”
They played ferociously, like a team that, as Ducharme suggested, wasn’t going to be content just putting in a good effort. The Canadiens put in a winning effort and played with the desperation they’ve been lacking as of late, and the two points earned them an eight-point lead on their closest pursuers in the standings — the Calgary Flames, who have played one more game than the Canadiens have.
This is how they must play from here to the end, with their next three games against Calgary — and with an opportunity to continue chasing down the Oilers and the other two teams ahead of them in the North Division.
“Like I said this morning, we can’t wait around any longer; these games are way too important,” said Anderson. “We’ve got to start playing playoff hockey so once we get into the playoffs we’re ready to go (and) not a step behind.”
The 26-year-old, who signed a seven-year, $38-million contract shortly after being traded from the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Canadiens for Max Domi and a third-round pick over the off-season, has been playing with that edge since the season started. In doing so, he’s quickly established himself as a leader.
And Anderson played that role to perfection on Wednesday. He did it with his comments prior to the game and then delivered with his play on the ice.