Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens fight hard but fail to beat Devils in New Jersey

The Montreal Canadiens losing skid is now up to five games after falling 4-3 in New Jersey. Montreal outshot and out-chanced the Devils, but they couldn’t convert their chances effectively.

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Brendan Gallagher needed that. The first goal in over a month for Gallagher was a slap shot into the top corner on a pass from Jake Evans. It was only the ninth goal of the season for Gallagher, but what relief it must have been for him.

Creating the play was Josh Anderson who won the puck in the Devils’ zone after the dump-in. Strangely, that was the best line of the day for Montreal. In the first period, Anderson should have scored with an empty net on a 2-on-1 with Evans – the pass was perfect but Anderson flat-out missed the wide-open cage.

Right after their goal, the line had a 3-on-1 rush but were unable to convert. Anderson had a breakaway with the game still in doubt, but his shot hit the crossbar. The third line only scored once, but for players who surely were lacking in confidence, this strong game was a welcome relief.

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Montreal’s first line found its form again after two weak games. Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky were held without a point against Pittsburgh and Buffalo, and they looked tired. It’s tough to face the best players all the time.

Against the Devils though, late in the second period, the first line broke through as Caufield found Suzuki with a cross-ice pass. Suzuki had all the time he needed to skate to 15 feet out, then fire a shot short side for a 2-1 Montreal lead. Late in the contest, Suzuki added another with a shot five-hole. Suzuki now has 22 goals on the season. His career best is 26.

Click to play video: 'Nick Suzuki, 23, named youngest captain in history of Montreal Canadiens'
Nick Suzuki, 23, named youngest captain in history of Montreal Canadiens

Suzuki’s aim this season is to eclipse his career best of 66 points and perhaps even attain a point-per-game clip. Now with his 55th point in his 58th game, Suzuki is on pace for 78 points. Suzuki will have to get hot, but it’s still possible, and it is one of the few things to look forward to for the rest of this rebuilding season.

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In the third period, the highlight of the entire game was a shift from Slafkovsky. He was a monster on the puck using his size to be indefensible. On the shift, Slafkovsky set up Suzuki for a tap-in, but he couldn’t get enough on the puck when he was checked effectively. Suzuki also had a breakaway on the shift, but it was Slafkovsky’s domination that will stick with fans.

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One note on that shift that may get overlooked is that Slafkovsky also skated 200 feet on a back check to try to stop Dawson Mercer’s breakaway attempt. It’s not the hustle that is vital, but the stamina that Slafkovsky had to continue with 40 seconds of zone dominance after that 200-foot back check.  It was a long shift and he skated miles.

In his first season, Slafkovsky struggled with his pace at the 45-second mark in his shifts. It’s difficult to know why that happens, but breathing isn’t just about being in shape; it’s also about being relaxed and confident. Whatever the issue was, it is no more as Slafkovsky gets stronger as shifts become extended.

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It is necessary to single out Mike Matheson in this contest. It was 2-2 when Matheson was turnstiled twice on New Jersey rushes. On the first, Nico Hischier took advantage of Matheson flat-footed at the blue line. On the second, Jesper Bratt just flat-out beat Matheson for speed to the outside and pivoted around him.

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Matheson gets 28 minutes on many nights, and usually, he doesn’t get beaten one-on-one that badly. Martin St. Louis’ most reliable defender had a rough one.

Click to play video: 'Pointe-Claire native Mike Matheson excited to join Montreal Canadiens'
Pointe-Claire native Mike Matheson excited to join Montreal Canadiens

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It is nearly time for the rebuild to end and for the Canadiens’ rise from the bottom of the standings to occur. General Manager Kent Hughes must look at his whiteboard in his office every day imagining what his roster is going to look like in 2024-25.

Training camp next year should be interesting. For the first time in four years, there should be a fight for jobs at every position.

When this year began, Hughes didn’t even know if he had a top line that he could rely on, but now it is obvious. Nick Suzuki flanked by Juraj Slafkovsky and Cole Caufield will be together for a long time. They are just getting started toward greatness. It appears they will be the first 100-goal line in Montreal this century.

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The second line will soon take shape as well. Kirby Dach will be the centre. Dach will likely have Alex Newhook on one side and it is starting to look like Joshua Roy will be the winger on the other side. Roy is playing excellent hockey and looking like an NHL regular already.

After that, the third and fourth lines will be quite a battle for jobs at training camp. Only the spots at centre seem to be close to assured: Jake Evans will have a spot guaranteed and Christian Dvorak will join him. These centre jobs are theirs to lose unless there is a trade.

On wing, the final four roster spots are wide open. The list of names fighting for four jobs is huge. Veterans Joel Armia, Josh Anderson and Brendan Gallagher will, of course, have the inside track. However, if they falter, or someone has a terrific camp, many rookies are ready to jump in to win.

Owen Beck, Sean Farrell and Filip Mesar are getting closer. Rafael Harvey-Pinard and Jesse Ylonen will try to get their mojo back as well. Even the 2024 first-round draft pick may win a job in his first camp, though it wouldn’t be expected.

The veterans may have only one more season with the inside track before the rookies breakthrough.  This year, the top line came together. Next year, the second line will be expected to come together. The following year, it should all come together.

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The rebuild is nearly done.

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

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