Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens shade New York Rangers in shootout

The Montreal Canadiens were met with the toughest test possible in the NHL Saturday night, going against the top team in the standings, the New York Rangers, at the Bell Centre. Montreal won it in an absolute thriller, 4-3 in a shootout.

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The last time that Brendan Gallagher scored a goal was Nov. 11. A massive 25 games later, Gallagher scored again. What a long and painful wait for Gallagher, but now it’s finally over. The goal was a beauty as well. Gallagher won space in the high slot, took to the net and roofed a wrist shot from 20 feet into the top corner to beat Jonathan Quick.

Gallagher has worked hard through the drought. No one had to keep up encouragement. No one had to make sure that Gallagher didn’t exit emotionally. He was quintessential Gallagher keeping his head up and working. Finally, he got the opening he needed for a 1-0 Canadiens lead.

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Another goalless drought ended in the second period. It was Sean Monahan who scored his first goal in ten games. It was his tenth of the season, which is among the team leaders, yet it still felt like a wait off considering he was also struggling to find the net. Quick’s tending was not good on that shot. He’s been outstanding this season, but allowed two goals in eight shots after the Monahan goal.

One minute later, it was three goals in nine shots for the Canadiens. Joel Armia continued his strong play with goals in back-to-back games. Armia deserves a lot of credit for taking his demotion to the minors, working hard, and coming back to play some of the best hockey he has played in a long time.

Montreal was taking it to the best team in the league two nights after getting drubbed 6-1 by also-ran Buffalo leading by three. The Rangers amassed a lot of the territorial play after that, but one player who handled it all well was Jayden Struble.

It’s an excellent notation for a player when he is the best against the best. Struble handled the outstanding Rangers beautifully. Even with the Rangers excellent press, Struble didn’t have any issues finding the time to make the right play.

Certainly, Struble is not the flashiest defender on the club, but he might just be the steadiest on the club. He makes the fewest mistakes of the six on the blue line most nights. When Struble was called up from Laval, he got the chance only because of injuries. If he goes back down, it will only be because he doesn’t have to clear waivers.

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Struble is certainly top-six. With this confident start, and with his learning curve still expanding, it appears he is a gem that the management team wasn’t expecting. So many great defenders, and so few spots available for them.

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What a game for Samuel Montembeault as well. He faced 49 shots stopping 46 of them. That included two point blank attempts from the Rangers with five seconds left in overtime.  In the shootout, Montembeault saved all three as the Canadiens pulled out a victory in one of the most exciting games this season.

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While Struble was outstanding, it was a tough night for Kaiden Guhle. He had a difficult time with the Rangers forecheck. Guhle was beaten soundly with the score tied at three, so he had to take a desperation penalty after allowing a breakaway.

Guhle has a bright future, but there are nights when the learning is still a process. Shockingly, the less heralded Struble never seems to get beaten as cleanly as Guhle was two or three times during the contest.

The blue line is young, and there are many lessons to go. It’s alright to be beaten periodically. It’s a part of growing pains moving up to the best league in the world. Montreal is in excellent shape on the blue line, and it will be fascinating to see who keeps growing into a first pair defender, and who finds their ceiling soon.

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Mike Matheson didn’t become the defender he is now until 28 years of age. Any prediction anyone makes now on these 22 year olds is premature. It’s nearly impossible to know. That’s why the work of GM Kent Hughes on this dozen defenders is absolutely vital. Hughes will seek to move some of these blue liners eventually because the numbers don’t add up. His choosing the right ones to move and the right ones to keep will be some of the most difficult work of his tenure so far.

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Lane Hutson keeps passing every test that he has faced. Hutson was asked to be the anchor for the USA team on defence at the World Junior Hockey Championship in Gothenburg, Sweden. It was a lot to ask, but he had no issues at all.

Hutson led the tournament in ice time with  27 minutes per game. He was among the tops in points for defenders with six. All this while definitely taking up the challenge of making sure he kept it tidy in his own end. Hutson was stellar in the final that the Americans won 6-2 over Sweden.

Everyone in hockey knows about Hutson’s offensive skills. The question mark has been whether he can take care of his own end as well, making him valuable not just on the power play, but all the time, in all situations. The answer, in play amongst his peers, is a resounding yes that he can prosper.

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Hutson also didn’t back down when challenged by a six-foot-four-inch player exchanging punches with Swede Anton Johansson. Hutson didn’t expect that he would be punched repeatedly, and after comprehending what had just happened, he gave it back better than he got it.

Hutson is ready. It will be exciting to watch how his skill set translates at the NHL level. College hockey has never seen a more creative player on offence. Hutson has set scoring records for Boston University surpassing even Brian Leetch’s numbers at Boston College four decades ago. However, Hutson is small in height and weight, so scouts believe that he will face physical challenges. If he passes the physical strength test, the sky is the limit. His ceiling is astronomical, but can he reach it?

All that has happened in Hutson’s career so far is everyone has doubted him. Even the Canadiens doubted him as they made three picks before finally settling on Hutson at 62. He was ranked late first round, but fell to late second due to his size.

Considering what Hutson had achieved at the U18s, that he was ignored from pick 40 to pick 61 is practically an indictment on pro scouts need for height. Historically, 75 per cent of the second round selections will not be NHL players, and 97 per cent won’t be stars. How a chance on that level of upside wasn’t taken for Hutson all the way to the 62nd selection is shocking.

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It’s the Canadiens gain. The fascinating next chapter starts in late March when Hutson is likely to conclude his college career, sign a 3 year entry-level-contract in the pros, then head to Montreal for the final dozen games of the Canadiens NHL season.

Hutson’s arrival is definitely to look forward to in 2024.

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

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