Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens fall to the Minnesota Wild in overtime

It’s back to back games before the Christmas break for the Montreal Canadiens. Thursday night they were in Minnesota, and Friday they’ll be in Chicago as part of a huge seven-game road trip. The Wild have moved back into the playoff chase in the west, while the Canadiens continue to surprise in the east.

Minnesota posted a 4-3 win Thursday, scoring in overtime with only five seconds left.

Wilde Horses

The Canadiens are still predicted by oddsmakers to finish fifth last in the league. Well, they better get going on that, because so far it’s not even close. In fact, the Canadiens are only three points out of a playoff spot as they continue to compete well.

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While the visit to St. Paul was far from the most exciting game, the Canadiens did all they needed to compete against a hot club. Montreal’s worst period was the first, but they took over after spotting Minnesota two.

The team’s offence continues to revolve around Nick Suzuki as he tries to finally eclipse his career best 66 points. This season, he just might do it. Suzuki had an assist on David Savard’s goal, then he scored himself earning space in the blue paint to tap home a Juraj Slafkovsky shot.

Suzuki has played 32 games this season and has 28 points on the year. He is on pace for 72 points. He will have to stay healthy, but he’s playing strong hockey and his season is improving instead of fading like past years when he has started well, only to tire.

It appeared the Canadiens would fall, but with 3:03 left, they again stayed in the fight. Slafkovsky parked his unmovable body in front of the net where he managed to somehow deflect a shot that was about to hit him in the stomach. It was a remarkable deflection. A remarkable display of hand-eye coordination.

The top line on the club had a 63 per cent shot share. The other three lines for the Canadiens barely hit double digits.

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Kaiden Guhle laid out a monstrous hit in the second period against the Wild’s star Kirill Kaprizov.  One second later, Guhle was in a fight, because that is the code. Any player that lays out a hit in the NHL of any powerful measure must answer for it with a fight.

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The fighter was Marco Rossi who gives up six inches and 20 pounds to Guhle. Naturally, the result was predictable. Guhle threw him around like dough making a pizza. Thankfully, the referee got it right calling an instigator penalty on Rossi.

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The issue is that no legal hits are allowed in the sport anymore. In the NFL, when a player lays out another player with a clean hit, everyone greets that hit with respect that the hitter was able to lay out their own teammate. That is the way it should be. The hit was legal.

There are so many ridiculous ways the code plays out in the NHL. For example, if a player doesn’t hear the whistle in time and shoots the puck after the whistle, they have to answer for that. The shot could be so soft it wouldn’t break a plate, but here comes the cavalry to restore honour.

We love it, but hockey is a funny game.

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The last time the Canadiens had a dominant line was in the shortened COVID-19 season of only 56 games. In that year of the North Division, the Canadiens advanced to the Stanley Cup final on the backs of Carey Price, Shea Weber and a line that was almost perfect 5-on-5.

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At even strength, the line centred by Philip Danault with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar on the flanks allowed only three even strength goals all season. They were a dominant force. The Canadiens lost Danault soon after because he was undervalued by General Manager Marc Bergevin.

Since then, the Canadiens have fallen apart, down to the bottom five of the standings in consecutive years. The club hasn’t had a consistent line with even a 50 per cent share of possession, never mind a dominant line in any capacity.

Lines centred by Kirby Dach have flirted with a good shot share, but Dach has been injured so quickly in consecutive seasons that no level of consistency was ever found. If Dach were to ever stay healthy for an extended run, there’s a good case to be made that he could drive a line and find success.

Imagine the top-six hopes for GM Kent Hughes knowing Dach has a chance to be dominant, and suddenly there is a line already coming of age this season. This is the best case for hope in the future for Montreal hockey fans that they have seen in a long time.

While Danault’s line in 2021 was strong, it was the defence that led those metrics. In this case, Nick Suzuki with Cole Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky has a chance to be exciting in the offensive end.

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It’s only 14 games together, but the numbers are outstanding. The Expected Goals percentage for the trio is 61.7 percent for the tenth best line in the league playing 5-on-5 this season. It’s been easy to see this number in the eye-test. It seems every time the line is out, the play is in the attacking zone.

The top line, according to Money Puck, is Zach Hyman, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Connor McDavid at a 77.1 share.  Second place has Danault near the top of the league again. This time, he is partnered with Trevor Moore and Kevin Fiala for a 67.1 share.  Danault makes everyone great around him.

It’s not inconceivable to think that the Suzuki line with Slafkovsky and Caufield can improve on their 62 share. They’re all first round draft choices. They’re all young. They all have the best years of their careers very much in front of them.

If Slafkovsky’s dominant play battling for pucks continues, and he begins to shoot more, the goals will surely come along with the impressive possession. Caufield has a shooting percentage of a bizarrely low six.  Both players have a massive amount of upside in front of them.

It’s an exciting development for the Canadiens. If the line continues to dominate possession, begins to finish with even a small measure of expected ability, this would be the biggest development in the rebuild by a large margin.

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Next year, expect Dach to get healthy and show his ability to move the puck through the neutral zone into the attack. If he is joined by Alex Newhook, and perhaps a player to be named later via trade, free agency, or this year’s entry draft the Canadiens suddenly could have an exciting top-six.

The last point-per-game player in Montreal was Alex Kovalev who had 84 points in 82 games. That was in 2008. The fans at the Bell Centre who religiously number over 21000 every single contest, and the millions who watch from their couches aren’t dying for defence. They’re desperate to be lifted out of their seats by a point-per-game player.

That starts with domination in the offensive zone. With Slavkovsky forechecking and creating space, with Suzuki’s shot and vision, and Caufield’s finish, it might just be Kovalev’s number one day could be in jeopardy.

Expect the counter-argument that 14 games proves nothing yet. Admittedly, it is is small sample, but small sample sizes can’t get big unless they start like this. This is a stunningly good start.

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


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