Every season when the Montreal Canadiens head out west, it feels like the week when the team crashes back to earth, or in some cases, digs a bigger hole.
Game one in Edmonton saw the same scenario play out yet again: the Habs were shellshocked against the Oilers.
Game two in Calgary saw the Habs put their number one goalie back in net, but even he didn’t feel right. Carey Price said last week, after a self-admittedly abysmal game, that he needs to figure things out upstairs.
That means this was a very important game to see whether Price can find his better self physically and his more confident self mentally.
Habs fans know that this can’t be a successful season without some solid goaltending from Price.
- When Tomas Tatar was dealt by Vegas, all anyone could think about was how little he fit in on the Golden Knights’ playoff run that saw them make it to the Stanley Cup Final. Tatar sat more than he played under head coach Gerard Gallant. His stock was so low that he was a throw-in by GM George McPhee in a 3-for-1 deal for Max Pacioretty. A quarter of a season later and Tatar is looking like he will hit the 20-goal mark for the fifth time in his career. Tatar with the opening marker in the first period to give him eight goals on the season to go with eight assists for 16 points. That’s second on the team behind only Max Domi. It’s remarkable how much Tatar was punished in the trade market for not fitting in on a Vegas team that was oozing chemistry, so much that the head coach didn’t want to upset their special balance. There’s an added bonus overall: Marc Bergevin somehow convinced the Golden Knights to pick up a portion of Tatar’s salary. What a robbery!
- Eight straight games with a point for Max Domi. He has 23 points in 19 games this season, good enough for top 10 in the league. The line of Domi, Jonathan Drouin and Andrew Shaw continues to sparkle offensively, though they did struggle in their own zone in this one. Drouin has a 53-point best NHL season, but right now, with his goal, he has moved to 15 points in 19 games. Drouin is on pace for a 65-point season.
- If Carey Price wasn’t as outstanding as he was, this game would have been a Flames rout by the 10-minute mark of the second period. Price was stellar in front of a defence that abandoned him completely. The quality of chances and the quantity of chances were astronomical, yet Price had an answer just like the gold old days. The shots on goal were 45 to 22 Calgary. Price entered the game admittedly fighting the puck, but he had no confidence issues at all. The best thing that came out of this game, even better than the win, is that Price looked like he could be his better self this season after all. They’ll need him. They’ll need to support him more though, because you can’t expect him to be MVP like this all the time. This was a special one for Price. It was one where he was focused and very much wanted to silence critics. Mission accomplished in Calgary. These two points are all his.
- In just about every power play the Habs have these days, the opposition actually has the best chance to score. The Canadiens have the most 5-on-5 goals in the NHL. Scoring is not an issue for this team, but when they get on the power play, the likelihood that they’ll give up a “Grade A” chance is just as good as that they’ll get a “Grade A” chance. The belief is that the return of Shea Weber will change everything, and one more weapon will certainly help. However, what they need to do be less static. There is no movement on the Habs’ power play. They are predictable in their behaviour. They all stand in the expected spots. That means the defenders also stand in their expected spots. The predictability means that the players, who are talented enough, are easy to defend. This isn’t a short-term problem. It’s been an issue for a long time. Weber will make some difference, but not as much of a difference as he should if everyone is simply going to be static waiting for 55-foot bombs to go in. Goalies are fairly adept at 55-foot bombs these days.
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- Things are becoming quiet on this West Coast road swing for Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Shift after shift for the 18-year-old without him touching the puck much. The coaching staff is working on his defensive game and it is improving. They’re doing good work with the young Finn on that front as, for a teenager, he’s looking better at centre than Drouin did last season. However, it’s his offence in the coming years that will be needed most, so it’s a little concerning to see that Kotkaniemi isn’t receiving many opportunities to develop his stick skills. Certainly, he has shown outstanding vision and passing, but some skills are not being developed here enough considering he might have the puck on his stick for only 10 seconds in an entire contest. In Calgary, it felt like he made no impression with the puck whatsoever, but chased the game, and yes, that point does include the fact that he got an assist on the Artturi Lehkonen goal.
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- History may record it as the best trade that GM Marc Bergevin ever made. Max Pacioretty, who struggling mightily with only two goals this season, was dealt in a bold move for three assets: Tomas Tatar, who is on pace for his best season in the league, a second-round draft choice next season, and perhaps the gem of the trade – prospect Nick Suzuki. The former first-round draft choice is pouring on the points for Owen Sound. Suzuki has played 19 games and has 17 goals and 16 assists for 33 points. That puts him in the top 10 in league scoring. Suzuki is listed as a centre but it looks like he will line up on the right side for the Habs when he arrives. He will be loved there, especially with Jesperi Kotkaniemi who, as a left hander, will see Suzuki easily with a forehand pass on his right side, Instead of Joel Armia not finishing exquisite passes for Kotkaniemi, it will be Suzuki finishing the play with his lightning shot. On nights when it seems rough this season, fans only need to remember what the future looks like with players like Suzuki arriving, and Kotkaniemi maturing.
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- Mike Reilly was scratched for the first time this season. Reilly has certainly seen his game drop, but the use of Jordie Benn and David Schlemko over Reilly is still a head scratcher. This is a league of puck movement from the defence, especially for the Habs who need to feed their speedy wingers in full flight to find success, and these two do not bring that to the rink at all. The problem is Reilly wears down. It’s been his issue over the years. As the season grows longer, he loses his will to make the body-bruising sacrifices necessary for success. As much as the league has grown softer, you still have to go for the puck first even if the forechecking “F-1” is coming hard at you to hit you into the boards. Reilly has to get past this to become a “3-4 D” in this league, because if he can’t, then he is still a “5-6 D.” How many top-pair defenders do the Habs have? Shea Weber is the only one, and that is a “perhaps” as he has played so little in the last year that he has to prove he hasn’t lost anything from his game. How many 3-4 defenders do the Habs have? The answer is probably Jeff Petry now and Noah Juulsen in the coming years. The rest of the lot are third-pair defenders at best. Xavier Ouellet, who drew back into the line-up, along with Benn, Schlemko, Victor Mete, and Karl Alzner are all third pair. It is no wonder why the Habs are both 27th in the league in goals allowed, and 29th in the league in save percentage, causing their goalies to face a shot quality that’s just too high. It’s about talent. You can’t fake it. GM Marc Bergevin has done an excellent job turning the club around up front, especially strengthening the centre position, but now it’s time to evaluate the position he played for in his long NHL career, and not fall in love with what he was for that entire time — a journeyman defenceman.
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