Call of the Wilde: Detroit shades Montreal Canadiens in OT as Habs’ season nears end

A home-and-home with the Detroit Red Wings is all that remains for the Montreal Canadiens in the 2023-2024 season. It’s been a season of improvement, and that’s the simple goal in a rebuild.

This one carried extra excitement as it was the debut of college sensation Lane Hutson. The Canadiens and Red Wings played perhaps the most exciting game of the year.

The Wings kept their playoff hopes alive with a 5-4 overtime win.

Wilde Horses 

If a player moves to a higher level and he can’t do his strengths, that is the first indication that he may be in for some difficult days. It isn’t about weaknesses. It’s what brought the player to the NHL — his strengths. Can he still achieve his best traits at higher levels?

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The most obvious example is when a goal scorer has big totals in a junior hockey league, but can’t score at all at the NHL level. Another example would be a playmaker at the college level who has plenty of time to make plays, but at the NHL level, he can’t hold on to the puck to create success.

This is why the first period of game one in the career of Lane Hutson showed right away that he was going to have absolutely no difficulty with his strengths. On the first shift, he had very little time to make a pass to Juraj Slafkovsky and did it perfectly.

On the second shift, he scored his first NHL point already. It was classic Hutson. He danced along the blue line. He was pursued by a checker whom he left in his wake. He then made a feint to beat two more before shooting it on goal. Brendan Gallagher scored on the rebound.

Two shifts later, it was Hutson with a beautiful pass after getting the puck off a draw in the offensive zone. He waited and waited until the shooter found his open lane. It was, once again, gorgeous. Hutson has shown so quickly that he can do exactly what he has always done as a player, offensively.

Defensively, Hutson made an error leading to the Red Wings first goal. There is no disputing that it’s important that Hutson plays good defence as well, but defence is about decisions, and decisions get better with experience. Decisions can be improved far easier than talent can be found.

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On that first goal against, Hutson tracked forwards up high, and as a result, he got caught. He couldn’t track back down-low to the goal fast enough, so he ended up watching the puck, instead of taking a man. There will be teaching moments defensively, but as long as he can do offensively what made him one of the best college scoring blue liners in history, he will be an outstanding NHL player.

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As the game progressed, it was clear that Hutson was going to have no trouble finding his passes. Sometimes they were stretch passes that freed players. Sometimes they were simple passes to forwards on the other wall. A player must feel that he has time to make a good pass. It’s a good indicator that there is a calmness in the work. Hutson always looked calm in his first game.

In fact, the most striking note is that Hutson looked exactly like he did as a Boston University Terrier. He moved from college hockey to the NHL and his game did not alter. He was able to achieve the same profile in his first NHL game which is remarkable.

As the game progressed, Hutson got stronger defensively. Around his goal, his head was on a swivel. He was looking for his check, and body-positioning well to block out attackers. He also anticipated the play beautifully on defence to be first on loose pucks.

In overtime, 3-on-3, where Hutson will excel, he wheeled and had a chance right in the slot. It was gorgeous. The win was on his stick. However, with Hutson down low, he wasn’t backed-up and the Red Wings came back the other way to win it.

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Head coach Martin St. Louis sure liked Hutson’s first NHL game. Hutson had 22:04 of ice time.

Wilde Goats 

There are no goats. There were only outstanding performances.

Brendan Gallagher scored twice. He now has 15 goals on the season. That may not sound like a Gallagher season, but 15 is a respectable number for a player who gets little to no power play time. Gallagher and his contract are not liabilities. In fact, this was a solid season for Gallagher.

It was also a strong night for Rafael Harvey-Pinard, who scored on a terrific pass from Jake Evans. Evans also had a strong season. He was asked to assume a much larger role with the injury to Christian Dvorak, and he shone. There is an NHL spot for Evans on a stronger Canadiens club. Ultimately, when the team is of a higher quality, he would be a fourth-line centre and a good one.

Josh Anderson didn’t make an impression on the scoresheet, but he had a strong game. Anderson has been looking more comfortable finally. He is driving the net like he used to. He may be finding the courage he needs in his game again after his serious high-ankle sprain injury. It says here that Anderson recovers next year to have a strong season putting this year’s woes behind him.

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The club is looking quite competitive in game 81. The pieces are coming together.

Wilde Cards

The Canadiens’ first 100-goal line in 31 years may already be assembled. The century mark in goals is difficult to attain. Generally, there are only five to 10 100-goal lines per season. This year, there are seven.

In Montreal, fans haven’t been able to count on one this century. Even in the high scoring days of Alex Kovalev, the last player to be a point-per-game in Montreal in 2008, no line has been even close to 100 goals.

The last line to achieve the 100-goal mark was Brian Bellows, Vincent Damphousse and Kirk Muller in 1993. That says a lot about how good that cup-winning team was, and even more about how much of a scoring black hole fans have lived through in Montreal for a long, long time.

It may finally be ending. A 100-goal line could actually be a reality as soon as next season. The sample size of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky is getting solid enough to start dreaming. The arrival of Slafkovsky has changed everything.

In the last 41 games for the Canadiens, Slafkovsky has exploded with 15 goals after attaining only four goals in the first half of the season. Nick Suzuki has also had a tremendous second half as the top goal-getter on the line with 22 goals. Suzuki is playing the best hockey of his career. The laggard by only a small margin, even though he is considered the best sniper of the three, is Cole Caufield. He has 14 goals in the second half of the season.

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Add that up and the Canadiens line has 51 goals in 41 games. There is your 100-goal line. Can they duplicate that for an entire season? It promises to be exciting to find out. In their favour is that all three players are still improving, especially Slafkkovsky, whose ceiling seems very high. Also in their favour is that they have a chance to get a little relief in match-ups in the coming years, if the second line can also provide some offence and be a threat.

This is the type of scoring talent not seen in Montreal since 1993. That seems bizarre to say, but the numbers tell the true story. The best scoring teams under head coach Guy Carbonneau did not have a line that scored at the pace of Caufield-Suzuki-Slafkovsky.

Next season should be exciting.

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


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