Call of the Wilde: Plan the parade
The Montreal Canadiens’ first test opening night was an extremely difficult one. They faced the Toronto Maple Leafs, who are picked by many to reach the Stanley Cup final.
Montreal fared well, actually, taking the game to the Leafs before losing in overtime. The schedule-maker was not kind to the Habs on night two, either, with just as many challenges. The Penguins are the opposition in Pittsburgh, and they also are favoured by many experts to reach the final.
Also, the Pens scored seven goals on their opening night of the season, so the Habs defence would surely be tested. The upside is at least you will know quickly where the Habs stand in the overall picture.
They put an “A” on the jersey of Artturi Lehkonen, who seemed to very much like it. Lehkonen is off to a superb start this season. He had hard luck, injury-wise, and the sophomore blues last season for the most part, before putting in an outstanding last 20 games of the season. He’s picked up just where he left off. That tip pass to Paul Byron on the second Habs goal was sublime. Just devastatingly talented to read the play and to execute it. This cannot happen unless the two players read each other perfectly. Lehkonen and Byron go together like peanut butter and jam; perfection by Lehkonen. And what a superb idea by the coaching staff and management to put a letter on the sweater. Nothing says things are changing around here more than passing the torch on to youth — a mature youth that can use it well and be more motivated to be a leader.
Paul Byron is off to an outstanding start as well for the Habs. He rang one off the post in Toronto that could have changed everything in the season opener, and his goal in this one was all-world. He took the pass and skated in like only Byron can, pulling away from his opposition as if they were skating in mush. The move was equally devastating to pot it home on the deke. Second period and it was more Byron as his speed was too much for the Penguins defence. It was his second goal of the game on an easy poke in. Byron isn’t taking a moment off after getting a surefire secure contract.
Max Domi rounds out the best three players on the team so far this season. Byron, Lehkonen and Domi dominating when they are on the ice against a team that usually not only dominates you, but can also embarrass you. It’s easy to fall asleep in Phoenix when no one seems to be paying attention. In Montreal, you wake up and feel that fan attention and sometimes remember why you love the game. Domi is playing with a huge smile on his face and a hungry attitude. He’s also playing with better line mates and it’s making a difference. This is the best that I have seen Domi play as a pro. This is the Domi that we all fell in love with at the World Junior Championships when they were in Montreal. This is the Domi that so many scouts were heard to say, “Well, the Coyotes really stole Domi drafting him there.” The trade of Galchenyuk to get Domi was not a popular one. It was a trade that I did not like at all, but so far, Domi is arguably the best Habs player and Galchenyuk is listed as week-to-week with yet another serious lower-body injury. A trade is assessed over many years, but round one is definitely the Habs with a 10-7 score.
The Habs made a change in lines, moving Kotkaniemi away from the first line at times, but it didn’t matter to the 18-year-old as he looked comfortable again. He played smartly defensively, reminding me that he angles off forwards exactly the way that Lehkonen does thinking that the Finnish coaches really focus on this, because they’re both exceptional at it. He also made this sublime move behind the net to lose his check and lead the clear of the defensive zone for the Habs.
It was certainly a quieter night than opening night when he put in a shockingly good Corsi of 68, but he still was strong, and the head coach should not worry that any of this is too big for him so far. In fact, credit to Claude Julien for playing Kotkaniemi on the power play.
Brendan Gallagher brought his usual “the Stanley Cup on the line” effort in this one. Gallagher scored the opening goal, but the real story was again a work ethic that is unequaled. To clear the zone on one occasion, he sprawled out and made the play. Gallagher would have made a good captain on any other team that didn’t have one of the greatest natural leaders in hockey Shea Weber, but he sure makes a great assistant captain leading with effort.
The Habs’ penalty kill even showed some strong results proving that sometimes it can all come together at the same time — that one successful aspect produces confidence that another aspect can also be successful. It was Byron to Joel Armia and he got on the scoreboard shorthanded with a perfect tip-in. The Habs were up 4-0 and the Penguins didn’t know what hit them. What hit them was a team skating at breakneck speed and bringing the game to their opposition unlike any moment of last year’s Habs.
The coaching staff gets a lot of credit for the success so far this season. This is a much more aggressive team than they have been. You can only do what the talent allows you too, of course, but the Habs forecheckers are relentless. The speed the team is bringing seems more significant and in some cases it would be fair to say that Toronto and Pittsburgh have been unable to keep up.
Mike Reilly does not look at all like last year. Perhaps he is another player who just didn’t see the need to give it that much of an effort when it had all gone downhill already anyway when he arrived. His strengths and weaknesses are well known. His strengths are skating, passing, head manning it quickly. His weakness has always been a commitment to make a play when there was a physical price to pay at the end of it. Not so far this season — Reilly is committed; he is excellent. Perhaps the best defender on the team this season. When a team turns around a terrible season into a good season, a lot of things have to happen.
The bottom line, of course, is players have to play better. Just look at all of the players delivering so far so much better than last season. Reilly might be the biggest change of everyone after two games. He’s significantly better.
Congratulations to Trevor Timmins who is massively under-appreciated. The zone that he drafted Noah Juulsen is a 50-50 proposition that he becomes an NHLer. Timmins has found a gem. Claude Julien thinks so too as he had Juulsen among his highest for ice time among defencemen in the game. Juulsen is playing so steady. He is soaking up the pressure with aplomb. He isn’t tense. He isn’t finding the game too fast. He’s just playing one smart and steady shift after another. In the third period of this one facing immense pressure, he mad an extraordinary outlet pass to help clear the zone. You have Juulsen and Reilly for a full season, and actually add Mete for a full season, and suddenly this isn’t the same blue line as last year’s that struggled so mightily. It’s still the Achilles heel of the team but it is so much better than last year, and if the wingers can continue to force the play with a ferocious forecheck, then the issues on the blue line can be mitigated even more.
Carey Price sure is enjoying this tighter defence. He probably feels like he’s in heaven after getting peppered for 35 shots night after night last season. Price against the Penguins had faced eight shots halfway through the game. It’s hard to even put Price in the Wilde Horses because he did so little, but when you allow one goal against a team that got seven goals on opening night against the Stanley Cup champions, it’s a pretty good night to be a hockey goalie.
Price was great, naturally, and the defencemen also were solid blocking a ton of shots to help the cause. The Habs had 22 shots to the Penguins 7. A very committed effort over all 200 by 85.
WATCH: Call of the Wilde: Habs impress in first game
It’s difficult to pick out goats when the team is playing so well so far this season. It would be fair to say that most fans and hockey experts saw two bad losses for the Habs to start. Many would have thought blow-outs were even possible, so when they have competed so well, it’s not easy to write up failures.
With that said…
Jonathan Drouin on opening night I thought that he carried the puck well, but it just didn’t come together for him. But talented players have to try to do talented things. They can’t just pass the puck off to someone else. They’re the ones with the expectations to try a difficult thing. Well, it seems night one kind of played on Drouin’s mind, because on night two he wasn’t ready to try the difficult thing. He essentially didn’t have the puck at all. He has to have the puck more. He has to chase it. He has to be around it. Stars can’t be stars chasing the play all night. So here’s a thought you might find odd, but here it is: I would rather see great players who are there for their hands to try difficult things and fail than to not be a part of the game. If you’re not a part of the game, then there isn’t even hope that it’s going to change. If you’re trying difficult things and they just don’t come together, then next time they just might. However, let’s relax here. It’s two little games. Big deal. Let’s keep the knives in the drawers for a time, before everyone starts to worry.
READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Opening night
For me, the future right side of the blue line is Shea Weber, Noah Juulsen and a Josh Brook that is absolutely lighting it up in the juniors as perhaps the best defenceman in the WHL. So where does that leave Jeff Petry? I think it leaves him in a difficult spot when Marc Bergevin needs some serious help on the left side of the blue line to truly compete down the road. So, for me, each mistake that Petry makes is magnified. Like the mistake on the Pens first goal when both Petry and Mete played it too soft. There was nothing in that play that said goal, except when it went in and both of the defenders were outworked. Mete gets a free-pass. Not Petry. That’s what it means to be a veteran compared to someone just out of his teens. You have to get just a little bit more from Petry, especially when Josh Brook is expanding his ceiling every game he plays in junior as his replacement.
Those are a couple names that can give more than they have so far, but let’s be honest here: if we told you the score was 5-1, you would have said, “Well, gonna be a long and tough season,” and no one would blame you. That’s the score they won by. How many of you called that?
Watch: Call of the Wilde: How are the new Habs prospects doing?
The Canadiens may need some time for sure to get back to the top notches of the standings again, but they have made significant strides to that goal in a very short amount of time.
The roster that finished fourth to last in the NHL last season has improved greatly. It may not translate to that many more points overall. I’ve predicted a rise from 71 to 83, but the stepping stones are being laid with skill so far. It was the summer of Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmins. Most of what Timmins did will be known more in the longer passage of time, though we can already see the impact of first round draft pick Jesperi Kotkaniemi to the roster.
We also can already see the improvements from Bergevin. Here is who has arrived on the Canadiens: Kotkaniemi, Tatar, Domi, Armia, Plekanec again, Peca, Ouellet, soon first round pick Suzuki, and coaches Bouchard, Richardson, and Ducharme. Here is who has departed: Galchenyuk, Pacioretty, and coaches Daigneault, Lefebvre, and Lacroix. It is significant how much more talented this team is, and at least a dozen players who have a shot at the NHL are drafted and waiting for their chance in the junior leagues, college, and Europe.
The team is still weak on defence and that, along with the centre position, will hold the Habs back from achieving playoff success this year, but the roster is better overall and the hope for improvement is a lot higher than it was only a half-year ago. The hole was dug fairly deeply, but they’re filling it up rather quickly too.
It’s going to be quite interesting to see the growth of this extremely young hockey team this season. I believe the low point in this rebuild is already in and it’s upward from here.
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