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Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens finish road trip with 4-3 win over Dallas Stars

The seven-game road trip is finally over, and it was a good one for the Montreal Canadiens who competed hard every single game. A difficult test to wrap it up was facing the Dallas Stars on Tuesday night, who have a lot of talent and could go far in the playoffs.

The Canadiens put in an excellent performance, beating Dallas 4-3. The Stars made it close with their goalie pulled for the last six minutes, scoring twice, but Samuel Montembeault was strong to win it.

Wilde Horses 

It’s extremely difficult to be a great line on a one-line hockey team. Every time that line goes out for a shift, they are greeted by the best players from the other team; not just the best forwards, but also the best defensive pair. The best line of a weak scoring team never gets an easy night.

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This is why Nick Suzuki flanked by Juraj Slafkovsky and Cole Caufield are truly remarkable in their short time together. It’s 20 games together, and they remain one of the best lines in the league. If the Canadiens had a second line that the opposition had to worry about, Suzuki’s line’s statistics would be even better.

As it stands, the line is the 12th best in the National Hockey League in Expected Goals, which is the go-to marker to measure play. The line stands at a 61-per cent share overall, and just did a stunning 88 against Dallas.

Suzuki is around the same totals as a player offensively in goals and points as last season, but as a complete player taking care of possession, this is his best season. Slafkovsky makes him better.

Slafkovsky is becoming quite difficult to take off the puck when he acquires it in the offensive zone. Montreal tied it up at one when Slafkovsky grabbed the puck, fought off his check, and fed Suzuki, so he could wire a shot upstairs.

The fortunes of the club could start to come together, if they could get a line healthy to be the second wave. A second dangerous line would compose Kirby Dach, Alex Newhook, and the draft pick that the Canadiens acquire this June. The 2024 entry draft features six outstanding forwards who will all be taken by pick number 10.

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The Canadiens are 31st of 32 teams in goals scored by forwards. The club is on pace for 232 goals this season — same as last year. It’s 50 goals fewer than they need for true success to be a competitive force again.

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It may seem far away, but take Suzuki, Caufield and Slafkovsky continuing to grow their games, add a healthy Dach and Newhook with a new powerful forward drafted, and the picture finally becomes positive.

There isn’t much offence in the pipeline presently. Outside hopes include Joshua Roy and Filip Mesar, but they still have to prove they have the pedigree to be top-six NHL players.

Canadiens defenders are already the best in the league in goals scored this season, with another two counted in Dallas in Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris. The highest ceiling blue-line prospects are still to come in Logan Mailloux, David Reinbacher, and Lane Hutson. It’s a talent pool absolutely overflowing on defence, but rather barren on offence.

Overall, there is considerable talent in the pipeline. It’s just a matter of eventually transferring some of that talent to the forwards. In whatever manner General Manager Kent Hughes constructs this project, the desired goal is an easy one to monitor: 285 goals for.

The goals against will come down naturally when the club doesn’t have only one line who plays in the other team’s end, but two lines who can dominate possession like Caufield-Suzuki-Slafkovsky can.

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With the third period goal by Caufield, two goals came from the top line, two came from defenders. It’s the story of the season, and it’s not difficult to know what must come next in the rebuild. Add one more line that can also do a 60-per cent possession, and this could be one heck of a good hockey club.

Click to play video: 'Brian Wilde on back-to-back Habs games before Christmas on Global News Morning'
Brian Wilde on back-to-back Habs games before Christmas on Global News Morning

Wilde Goats 

For the seventh game of a road trip to bring that high level of hockey, there can’t be any criticisms that need to be made here. The only people upset after this one are the ones who want a top-seven pick for Montreal. It’s going to be difficult to get a top draft pick in June playing like this. They’re too good.

Wilde Cards 

It was a difficult day for a couple of Canadiens prospects as they were eliminated from the World Junior Championships — difficult in a team sense, but in an individual sense, it was a strong day to evaluate their talent.

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First up was Filip Mesar, who concluded an outstanding event for Slovakia. Mesar scored the tying goal in the last minute to force overtime against Finland. The Finns eventually won early in the extra frame 4-3. Mesar had a goal and an assist in the contest. He played just under 23 minutes and had four shots.

It was only last September that many were down on Montreal’s Mesar pick late in the first round. Since then, he has become one of the huge stars of the Ontario Hockey League, averaging a point and a half per game on a Kitchener team that can score goals at will.

At the worlds, Mesar, in five games, had two goals and seven assists. He is second in points in the entire event. He plays a speed game and can execute difficult skills quickly. With his skating, and his fast brain, Mesar could end up being an outstanding choice for the Canadiens after all.

The other prospect for Montreal who was eliminated on Tuesday was Owen Beck. His line was ferocious in Canada’s last-second loss to Czechia. Beck was among the best forwards in the quarter-final defeat.

While Beck is not going to be a scorer at the NHL level, he has a hockey acumen that is second to none. It is highly likely that Beck becomes a defensive centre who can shut down the opposition’s best with his tenacity, as well as his ability to always be on the correct side of the puck.

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The other two Canadiens prospects who play for America had an easy day. The USA dominated its contest against Latvia as was expected. Jacob Fowler got the start for the United States, stopping 23 of the 25 shots that he faced. The final count was 7-2. It is likely that Trey Augustine gets the net for the semi-final game against Finland.

Lane Hutson continued his strong play for the U.S., as well. Hutson didn’t start the tourney that well, but has found his form in the last three games leading the club in ice time. Hutson has six assists, and he has potentially two more games to add to that strong total. Hutson has been one of the best players in the entire event.

All in all, no Canadiens prospect has seen its stock drop. Two were top 10 in the entire tournament. Many NHL clubs cannot make that claim that their players lived up to expectations.

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

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