Call of the Wilde: Pittsburgh Penguins take 4-3 shootout win over Montreal Canadiens

Two home games remain before the Montreal Canadiens’ annual Christmas trek across North America. It was Pittsburgh on Wednesday and the New York Islanders to come on Saturday, then a full seven games away from the Bell Centre.

The Penguins played at home Tuesday, beating Arizona, so they had the rougher schedule for this one. However, both teams were ready to go in a highly entertaining game that ended in a shootout that went 12 rounds with a 4-3 Pittsburgh win.

Wilde Horses 

It’s not difficult to know which prospect will shine in the NHL. Generally, a player excels at a lower level, then shows the same skills over time at the next level. For example, Cole Caufield shone at the United States Development Program, breaking scoring records, then he shone at Wisconsin University, winning the Hobey Baker Award. When he started scoring for the Canadiens, no one was surprised.

Story continues below advertisement

Every now and then, though, something weird happens: A player exceeds expectations at the NHL level with talent that he didn’t exhibit when he played at a lower level. Jayden Struble is that player who outpaces projections.

It’s not as if Struble was bad at Northeastern University. He was fine. He went about his business. Nothing spectacular happened when he was with the Huskies. He dressed, did fine, and then he dressed again. He had only one goal in 31 games for his university team in Boston.

Struble then got the call up to Montreal after 21 workmanlike games in Laval, and, suddenly, top-level talent breaks out. The game is so much faster at the NHL level and he is having absolutely no issue at all with it. It appears to be nothing to him to face the world’s best players.

Struble has only played 12 games and he already has two goals. His first period marker was gorgeous. He took the puck from behind the net, assessed the scene, and off he went. He skated all the way to the Pittsburgh blue line, then dished it off, then continued his path toward goal. He picked up the rebound for a beautiful tally.

Earlier in the period, Struble had forechecking pressure coming at him. He showed his beautiful skating balance as he met the traffic, and assessed the situation, then calmly fed it to his defensive partner. It was not an easy moment, but he made it look easy.

Story continues below advertisement

It was only last season when Struble was definitely not in the plans for the Canadiens blue line of the future. It is expected when Lane Hutson, David Reinbacher, and Logan Mailloux are ready that Montreal will have 12 NHL defenders. Surely, there was going to be no room for Struble.

The truth is that there is no way that he can be denied a spot on the blue line with play this stellar. Take the numbers off the sweaters, and just assess the player forgetting anyone’s pedigree, and Struble has been the best or second best Montreal defender in his dozen games.

Breaking news from Canada and around the world sent to your email, as it happens.

It’s easy to see him keeping this standard as well. He is making it all look so easy. Usually, there’s a rushed look or a panicked decision; sometimes a player gets plastered against the glass due to situational unawareness. With Struble, it is nearly trouble-free.

Struble is a top-six. He isn’t going anywhere. Management is going to have to make room for him. This is just the start for this second-round draft pick. The next dozen are going to be as good as the first dozen, and the next dozen are going to be even better than that.

Canadiens management will have to pick a top-six one day or trade some defender, because 12 does not go into six. It’s a nice problem to have for GM Kent Hughes to realize that yet another Habs draft pick has NHL skills.

Story continues below advertisement

It was another outstanding night for Juraj Slafkovsky on his new line with Caufield and Nick Suzuki. The line had an 85 per cent in expected goals. All three members of the line were over 80.

Slafkovsky was strong on pucks again setting up opportunities for himself. He had clear looks to take powerful shots, but was unable to convert. Importantly, he was able to find open spaces to shoot. The reluctance to shoot has been his biggest issue, but he had no hesitation in this one.

Slafkovsky’s statistics on the night were exactly what the Canadiens are looking for. He had a 65 Corsi, which is really the bottom line in a hockey game. Where was the game played when Slafkovsky was on the ice? Very much in the Pittsburgh zone.

Slafkovsky had three shots on night. He made five shot attempts. What his opposition will remember most, though, is he was not fun to play against at all.  The transformation in the last five weeks is, frankly, unbelievable. The points will soon come.

Wilde Goats 

It was an entertaining contest. The Canadiens had good energy. Not too much to pick apart.

Kaiden Guhle was caught out on a clever play by Sidney Crosby as he pretended, as the first forechecking forward, that he was going to simply stop in front of the net, but then surprised Guhle to force the turnover. Guhle will learn from this feint that led to an error.

Story continues below advertisement

Deception is a huge skill learned by NHL veterans, and there is no one smarter than Crosby. Guhle is not the first to get schooled. He won’t be the last.  Guhle had a fine game otherwise. Everyone was in the fight.

Click to play video: 'Call of the Wilde!'
Call of the Wilde!

Wilde Cards

Canadiens General Manager Kent Hughes has been kind enough to make the podcast circuit in the last week. Naturally he is guarded about revealing too much about the immediate future of the construction of the club, but he has also been forthright on some topics as well.

Naturally, he won’t want to speak too much on topics that will create a position of weakness for him in trade negotiations, or even salary discussions. However, there are some aspects of the business that he needs not be careful at all.

Story continues below advertisement

One is prospects to come that don’t have a trade on the horizon or a contract negotiation. One such prospect Hughes is happy to get excited about is Boston University draft pick Lane Hutson. Hughes says that he and Hutson both cannot wait to get started in a Canadiens uniform. Hughes says that he expects Hutson to sign as soon as the university season is over in late-March.

The most talked about topic that Hughes responds to with positivity is the career path of Juraj Slafkovsky. The first pick overall in 2022 is the biggest decision that the GM has made in his short tenure. After a tough start, Hughes sounds extremely pleased with the progress of Slafkovsky.

Hughes was asked what improvements he has seen: “His strength along the walls; his ability to protect the puck. Last year, he’d get bumped and knocked off balance. He’d lose the puck. He’s learning to take his stick off the puck as he absorbs physical contact and he is able to repossess the puck afterward”.

This is exactly what the first step is in development. A player cannot be successful without winning the puck, because there are no touches and no subsequent advantages without that essential first victory. Hughes noted that Slafkovsky still has to improve his decision making at times.

Hughes stressed that it is a process, and that a player cannot be overwhelmed with too much learning at one time, or he will not absorb it all well.  He suggested that some exciting days are to come with Slafkovsky in the next three years.

Story continues below advertisement

It was a huge moment taking Slafkovsky and not Shane Wright. It was a moment that shocked the hockey world. It is naturally too early to declare a victor, but Hughes can at least be happy that he is clearly in the fight.

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

Click to play video: 'Call of the Wilde!'
Call of the Wilde!

Sponsored content