Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens throttle Philadelphia Flyers, take big 9-3 win

The second-to-last home game of the season was Tuesday night at the Bell Centre in Montreal. The Philadelphia Flyers were in must-win mode as they are tumbling down the standings and now on the outside of the playoffs looking in.

The Flyers were desperate, but they played like they already know their fate. The Canadiens, meanwhile, had their biggest win of the year as they destroyed the Flyers 9-3.

Wilde Horses 

Train number 20 has arrived on track number one. Juraj Slafkovsky has shown the hockey world why he deserved to go first in the draft. The top line was unstoppable, and the leader was Slafkovsky who notched his first hat trick in the NHL. Slafkovsky is everything GM Kent Hughes had hoped for, and maybe even more.

Slafkovsky’s first goal was on a play that proves if he wants to, he can dominate in this area for the next dozen years. Caufield and Mike Matheson were weaving magic passes to each other while Slafkovsky parked himself in front of the net.

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Sometimes the defender doesn’t even try to move Slafkovsky when he screens the goalie and waits for a chance to deflect a point shot. They try a bit and then realize it is pointless, so they move on to something else. Slafkovsky deflected the shot with his skate for 1-0.

Slafkovsky is going to be an absolute menace in front of the net. It’s just a matter of how much pain he can take and how many crosschecks in the back the officials will allow. If he is brave, and the refs punish stick work, Slafkovsky will be a point-per-game player at the NHL level.

There are a lot of aspects of Slafkovsky’s game improving at an astronomical rate, but it is his ability to be a force in front of the net that stands out. They call them garbage goals, but they all count as one. Whether it’s a screen, a deflection, or a rebound that he chops in, they’ll add up to a lot of points.

Slafkovsky’s second goal was in close also as he received a gorgeous pass from Nick Suzuki to one-time it in easily just off the side of the net. The goalie never had time to set up. It was in while he was still moving left to cover the pass.

A short time later, hats were raining down at the Bell Centre. The standing ovation lasted for three minutes as Slafkovsky notched his third goal. It was David Savard with a seeing-eye pass to a streaking Slafkovsky on the breakaway. He shot from 10 feet into the top corner. He made it look so easy.

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Suddenly, it’s 19 goals on the season for the Slovak. He’s a point-per-game player in the last 15 games with 17 points.

Slafkovsky’s much better strength and balance on his skates this season has turned his six-foot-three-inch frame into a massive asset. This is what Mike McCarron could never achieve to be worth his first-round status. He couldn’t win puck battles in line with his size.

Size without the balance to use it is not worth much. Slafkovsky is already immovable. He will tell you where he wants to go, and then he will stay there as long as he wishes. The line is starting to read each other at an even higher level.

Cole Caufield’s offensive acumen has taken a significant leap this season. His ability to read the play and create time and space for himself is now excellent. At times, he used to be a standing target waiting for a pass, but these days he is always moving, always evasive.

Nick Suzuki’s overall game has also taken a big step forward as he flirts with a point-per-game pace with 75 in 78 games. However, it is Slafkovsky who might just be the best player of all three when he matures his game even more.

It’s been a tough season in some respects, but the development of Slafkovsky’s game is, without question, the number one win for the organization. They went off the board, and made the right pick.

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Wilde Goats 

If the Canadiens didn’t have a serious injury every week, there wouldn’t be a lot of bad news to pass in this season of team improvement. Arber Xhekaj is done for the final two weeks with a shoulder injury. The Canadiens say that Xhekaj will have a surgery immediately, so he can be ready for the start of next season.

Last year, Xhekaj had right shoulder issues. This year, it is his left shoulder. Thankfully, he is out of shoulders to fix after this operation.

While it was a bad day for one Xhekaj, it was a great day for another. Fl0rian Xhekaj improved tremendously in the OHL this season, so the Canadiens rewarded him with a three-year entry-level contract.

That ELC won’t be engaged until next season, but in a strong piece of CBA workaround, GM Kent Hughes offered the younger Xhekaj a professional tryout with the Laval Rocket. Florian can now be a part of a playoff run should the Rocket make the post-season.

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It is likely that Florian Xhekaj starts in Laval next season, but if he is anything like his brother, perhaps he shows enough to be on the fourth line in Montreal. The Xhekajs have a habit of over-achieving.

Wilde Cards

The Call of the Wilde predicted 75 points for the Montreal Canadiens before this season began. They will finish at that total or very close. It’s only April 9th but here is the points prediction for next season without even seeing the line-up in October.

Management may dig into the free agent market to acquire some goals, but even if they don’t, there will be huge improvements to the club next season, so the prediction is for a big uptick in results.

The Canadiens lost 22 games by one goal this season. Add another eight games where they were within one until an empty netter or two, and you have a team that was in 30 games, but did not put another point in the standings. All they needed 30 times was one more goal.

This is a statistic that suggests that they are a club on the verge of a breakthrough. If even half of the time someone could have provided that one extra goal, they would be a 90-point team, instead of a 75-point team.

They need more goals. They will get more goals.

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The number one line is only getting started. Cole Caufield had an outlier season to the downside with a shooting percentage of eight. Before his surgery, he was a 16-per cent shooter. That, too, was an outlier to the upside. Historically, Caufield is a 12-per cent shooter. He will score more.

Nick Suzuki may have a bit of difficulty attaining the same total as this year. He is having an outlier season in shooting percentage but to flip the coin over, he will get more support from his linemates as they continue to mature their games.

Juraj Slafkovsky is moving upward at a meteoric trajectory, learning a new skill every single game. He has gone from a point every four games to just shy of a point-per-game the second half of the season. Collectively, the top line should score more goals than this year.

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The big difference, though, will not be the first line. They will add some, but not a massive amount. The massive difference will come in secondary scoring where the Canadiens’ 63 goals on lines two, three, and four is the worst in the entire league.

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The second line led by Kirby Dach, likely to be accompanied by a more comfortable Alex Newhook, and perhaps even a UFA signing will be much better than this year. Statistically, a second line of high quality reaches for 70 goals in a campaign. Third and fourth lines shoot for 45 and 35 goals.

The 63 goals that the entire back nine forwards attained this season could be attained by the second line alone next season. Add some more support from a third and fourth line with easier matchups, and you could have some real recovery there as well.

As an example, Josh Anderson has struggled tremendously this year, but he could easily recover playing on a third line getting weaker match-ups instead of facing a club’s upper-echelon players.

There is no expectation here that the arrival of Owen Beck, Filip Mesar, or the first-round draft pick taken at number six overall moves the needle as soon as next season. All three of those possible additions will need seasoning first before they impact the roster. It’s the same situation for Lane Hutson, David Reinbacher or Logan Mailloux on defence. They will all have growing pains first before finding excellence. This is natural.

All of those arrivals feeling comfortable will impact the 2025-2026 point prediction. For now, the improvement of the forward composition next season pushes my prediction to 88 points for the Canadiens. That’s a better than .500 record. An opportunity to flirt with playoff hopes in March, before ultimately falling short.

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The rebuild continues. Bit by bit, the club is making improvements. The days of drafting five overall are over after this June’s pick. They’ll draft in the 10 to 15 range the following season. It’s up and out of this rebuild with a massive amount of assets.

To contest for cups, there is no pie-in-the-sky hope, though. To do that, they need a world-class player. An example is Leon Draisaitl entering free agency after next season. If not him, someone. The cap space is there. Almost all cup contenders have game-breakers and somewhere along the way, the Canadiens have to get a 100-point player.

If they don’t, as it stands now, this rebuild, when complete, will leave the Canadiens falling short of greatness, but teasing it on many good nights.

The bottom line is the worst is over. Enjoy the better days ahead.

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

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