Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens edge Buffalo Sabres in shootout

It’s a busy weekend for the Montreal Canadiens with games on back-to-back nights. The Sabres were in Buffalo, N.Y., Saturday before taking on the Nashville Predators at the Bell Centre.

The Sabres are underachieving yet again this season – Montreal was outplayed for most of the contest but Buffalo ended up losing 3-2 in a shootout.

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The Canadiens rode the goaltending of Cayden Primeau in another sluggish first period. Primeau was as outstanding as he was against the Vegas Golden Knights three weeks ago. On that night, Vegas pumped Primeau with 18 shots and he stopped them all. However, he broke down in the third period as the Knights won 6-5.

Primeau has the goods. He has great periods in him, but he has not always been able to turn great periods into great games. That finally changed Saturday night. Primeau stopped 17 shots in the first period and he built up a 1.97 Goals Saved Above Expected in the first period alone. He finished the game with a 2.68 GSAE.

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The Sabres were able to create a lot of offence against Montreal, managing 45 shots, of which Primeau saved 43. If not for Primeau, no one would have had the opportunity to feel good about the night for the Canadiens.

The best skater was Jayden Struble who continues to be an absolute revelation early in his NHL career. Struble has played only nine games in the national league yet he looks shockingly comfortable.

He is even better by comparison in the NHL than he was in college hockey. That really doesn’t make sense, yet the eye test says 100 per cent that is the way this is transpiring. Struble didn’t get a lot of press at Northeastern because he simply went about his business without much exciting offence.

When asked what was the greatest characteristic that a defender needs, Shea Weber answered “decision making.” That’s not the answer one would expect from a player with a monster frame and a massive shot.  The value of the power of smart decisions is strong in Struble. Weber would love Struble.

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Struble makes one easy-looking play after another. He’s so smooth that he doesn’t even stand out often. He has a 53 Corsi in his nine games, and that’s on a club that hasn’t exactly played dominating hockey the last three weeks.

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One play from Struble was a master class in defending. It was big-bodied Tage Thompson on a breakaway. Struble used his skating speed to catch him, then used his body position to take Thompson off the puck without even taking a penalty. This wasn’t some C-grade player from Providence University. This was one of the premier scorers in the league that Struble stopped cold.

A short time later, feeling confident off of that magic moment, Struble joined a rush with Jonathan Kovacevic. It was a 2-on-2. Struble streaked through the two defenders to red-direct the pass from Kovacevic for his first NHL goal.

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The Habs blue line is an embarrassment of riches at times. They have about nine that are NHL calibre already and about three or four more that are coming. Where are they all going to fit?

It wasn’t long ago that no one would have thought that Struble would be one of the big six, but he’s looking like a keeper. It’s difficult to see how he can be denied when he’s playing this well this quickly. It speaks to a very high ceiling to be this comfortable barely a dozen games into his professional career. This has been a remarkable path of improvement.

Click to play video: 'Owen Beck hopes to spend Christmas in Sweden with Team Canada at world juniors'
Owen Beck hopes to spend Christmas in Sweden with Team Canada at world juniors

That’s the same story that Juraj Slafkovsky is writing. His improvement in the last month is also meteoric. Slafkovsky has gone from pleas to help him by sending him to Laval to work on what ails him, to not have anything ail him. However, he does need to shoot quite a lot more than he has been – that’s the only blemish.

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No one knows what Slafkovsky’s shot looks like in game situations as he continues to pass to his mates Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Other than that, there’s been a huge improvement at board battles, he’s significantly better at his vision, passing beautifully to his mates. He’s smart defensively and reading the play with a skill not shown before.

In the shootout, Slafkovsky got a second chance in his career, and did he ever make it look good. Slafkovsky with the deke in tight. His edge work was absolutely world-class as he slowed down to a crawl in tight to score the game-winner. He gave it the Gladiator Are-You-Not-Entertained celebration. Yes, the confidence and belief is building.

It is looking like another lottery season for Montreal. How could it not be with season-ending injuries to Kirby Dach, and just shy of a season-ender to Alex Newhook? However, the road continues to look better ahead with so many players improving their games.

It is almost all-systems-go for the rebuild.

One lack is a point-per-game attacker who still needs to come by way of free agency, theft of another club in a trade, or the draft. Other than that glaring weakness, there’s a lot to be hopeful about inside the Bell Centre.

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One player who does not have the same decision-making savvy as Struble is Justin Barron. He is an enigma at times. Barron has such a great skill set. He has a big shot. He skates well. He is good on the power play. However, Barron can not seem to remove blunders from his game.

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In the third period, Barron had the puck inside his own blue line, but he had absolutely no awareness that there was a forechecker coming. He casually tried a cross-crease pass that was easily picked off. It led to a clean look at 15 feet. Luckily, it was saved by Primeau.

However, the play continued and Barron was still looking for someone to cover. He was eyeballing the puck and the Primeau save instead of taking a man to cover. That led to the 2-2 goal – a  comfortable game was suddenly tied.

Sometimes progression at the NHL level is an ability to slow down the mind becoming more comfortable with the speed of events created by the world’s best players. Barron can have issues slowing it down at times.

It should be noted that Barron has a difficult workload facing the league’s best players many nights. He has improved a large amount, but in some ways, he still has not arrived. He will frustrate occasionally, but overall, this is a player who has improved a great deal since last year. If Barron were a stock chart, he would be moving nicely from the bottom left to the top right. Time is also on his side. He’s still very young by NHL standards and has years to continue to figure it out.

A general manager can’t think of a sad tale of woe over a 22-year-old’s blunders. If he were 25 to 27 committing these errors, then, yes, the odd giveaway issue would be alarming. Right now, though, a GM needs to stay patient, and have faith that soon his sometimes suspect decisions will one day match his excellent skill set.

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While life in Laval, Que., is shockingly discouraging, Canadiens prospects are flourishing elsewhere. One in particular shows that the rise and fall of a prospect can be full of peaks and valleys, that the progression is not linear. Filip Mesar was looking quite troubled to start the season; he had lost his confidence, and the coaching staff in Laval had lost confidence in him.

To their credit, the Canadiens organization recognised that the match for Mesar was not in Laval. Mesar agreed to go back to junior with the Kitchener Rangers, and what a roll he is on playing on one of the top junior teams in the nation, and maybe the best offensive one as well. The Rangers have averaged five goals per game so far this season.

Mesar has found his game on the top line. He plays with the leading scorer in the league Carson Rehkopf, and on the other wing is Trent Swick. On Friday night, the Rangers came back from a five-goal deficit to win in overtime led by the top line accumulating 10 points on the night. They are close to unstoppable as a line and a team offensively.

Click to play video: 'Thousands of stuffies hit the ice during Kitchener Rangers’ annual Teddy Bear Toss'
Thousands of stuffies hit the ice during Kitchener Rangers’ annual Teddy Bear Toss

Mesar has played in 19 games and has 32 points for better than a point and a half per game, which is close to tops in the league. Mesar’s game translates to the NHL as well. He has lightning-quick speed. Skating speed is a skill, matched with a hard shot, that is hard to deny at the NHL level.

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It looked like Mesar was not going to keep developing this season. It looked like his countryman on the Canadiens Juraj Slafkovsky had also hit a wall. It simply shows that each prospect develops at their own pace, and it is folly to ever use the word “bust” publicly until seasons have passed. No one learns at the same rate. It only matters that they learn.

While everything is rosy for prospects like Mesar, Slafkovsky, Owen Beck in Peterborough, Lane Hutson at Boston University, there will be downturns still to come for all of them. On that day, everyone, including the players themselves, must remember that each new level brings with it a new plateau. The goal is to rest on that new plateau, consolidate, and then make the attempt to get to that next rise.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.


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