Call of the Wilde: Another win
A special night was in the making with the right result for the Montreal Canadiens.
Carey Price was trying to move into a tie for second place all-time for wins for a goaltender with the Habs equalling the mark set by Patrick Roy of 289 wins. Jacques Plante remains in the distance but certainly attainable for Price with 314 wins in his career with the Habs.
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It’s remarkable to think that the Canadiens have been playing for more than a century and it is likely that when he is done, Price will be the winningest goalie in their history.
As they say, there’s no more important win than this one. The Calgary Flames at the Bell Centre in one of the tougher tests of the season for the second youngest team in the NHL — the Habs.
Artturi Lehkonen has been solid all season, but this was his best game of the season. He is such a force defensively. He does everything right. For many years, you heard me say Lars Eller was the type of player that a team that wins the Stanley Cup has down the middle doing all the little things right. And indeed, Eller was a beast as the Capitals had him as third-line centre and even second-line centre for large portions because of injury to win the cup last season. The next player to say this about, like Eller, is Lehkonen. He is the type of player that a cup winning team has. He is a complete pain to play against. His positional play is near perfect. His decision making is near perfect. He, like Eller, won’t figure it out in a huge way scoring-wise, but he will get his goals too. He will, like Eller, have some shining offensive moments, but where he will really shine is simply always helping his club night after night after night.
Max Domi is better than expected. There simply is no denying it at this point. He helps the club in a big way with his offensive zone entries, especially on the power play when that is so vital to get set-up. The Habs finally scoring was on the back of an outstanding zone entry from Domi. His stick was busy and his head was bobbing and he backed off defenders, created space for himself, then fed it calmly to the right point for a perfect zone entry. He got a well-earned assist on the play. Domi also got an assist on a second Habs goal as he continues to put assists on the board. Domi seems to not have a scoring touch at the moment with some chances looking so golden that you can’t believe they didn’t go in — but his vision is good, his work rate is strong, his passing is excellent. More than that, not even a topic of conversation and for good reason, Domi is fitting in at centre in a big way so far. He is not struggling with the defensive responsibilities of the position at all and that is a tremendous bonus for a club that needed that in a big way.
Domi is also making a huge difference to Jonathan Drouin as he now does not have to concern himself with the centre duties, but just take the puck and see what he can create. Drouin took heat early this season, not from me, but he is flying now. Drouin looks confident. He is creating space for himself. He’s getting his chances, and he’s looking much more comfortable in his second season with the Habs. He counted a helper when the Habs finally scored on a hot David Rittich. He then ripped a quick shot in for a 3-1 lead. It was well deserved with the shots 33-13 Habs at that moment late second.
Matthew Peca with a strong skating game. He weaved through the middle and backed off defenders very nicely with that speed. Not seeing how Peca can be an influence on the scoresheet, but if he keeps skating that well, he can create space for himself, draw defenders to him, and then dish to someone who can perhaps finish it for him.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi gets a Wilde Horse on one pass. It was a world-class pass from the corner where your first thought is how did he even see Joel Armia? Your second thought is how did Armia not get a better shot away than that? Kotkaniemi deserved an assist and all you could really thing about is maybe Kotkaniemi should get away from Armia.
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Apart from a gaffe for Jeff Petry on the Flames first goal, it was the best night for Petry in a while. Petry with the power play rocket that opened the scoring for the Habs, and then an absolutely perfect pass to Brendan Gallagher also on the power play for the Habs first lead of the game. It was a showcase of the best talent that Petry has. This player is just so tantalizing. When he is at his best, he is so very good, but then there are these moments that you ache for the good Petry.
You don’t get a better pinch than the one Xavier Ouellet made on the third Habs goal. Victor Mete couldn’t attack the puck because his energy was going backwards, but somehow Ouellet sensed that and stepped up and in to keep the puck in the attacking zone. That led to Drouin’s snapshot home and the Habs had a vital 3-1 lead after two periods.
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It’s a marvel to watch Mike Reilly use his speed to be a modern defenceman in this era. Reilly pushes the play forward quickly and effectively because he can. He simply has the vision and the wheels to find himself in shockingly offensive postures, but then using the same wheels to get back into the play. Reilly has been quite a revelation. If you’re going to have a surprising situation, you have stories like Reilly: a player who Minnesota didn’t even care to have anymore trading for a fifth rounder; a player who wasn’t even pencilled in before camp as a sure thing; a player who is probably the Habs best defender night in and night out this season.
Not much offence to speak of by Phillip Danault but he had a strong game at centre in a defensive role. The Flames bring a lot of talent down the middle. They have considerable depth there but the Habs won all of the matchups. Danault had the toughest facing the Flames extremely talented first line led by Sean Monahan and managing well. It looked like an extremely quiet night for him to most, but he had a game that coaches know you don’t win without what he does to allow others to shine in their different more showcase roles.
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Habs fans are asking collectively why are they better this season so far. Sometimes the answers are actually found in the points. The Habs have played eight games and these players have eight points: Tatar, Domi, Petry. Two of the three weren’t on the team last year. Two more players have seven points: Paul Byron and Drouin. Last season, no one was even on the same continent as a point-per-game. This year’s team through eight games have five players flirting with the mark. That’s your answer…collectively. On defence, there is the same collective improvement. Opening night last year did not have Ouellet, Reilly, or Juulsen. All three clearly make the Habs a better hockey team.
Carey Price: 289 wins. Second ever for the Habs. That’s something pretty special. Now go get him a team that can really do this thing, GM Marc Bergevin, so he can add Stanley Cup to every other honour that he’s won — which is all of them by the way.
A strong first period for the Habs but they found themselves down by one after 20 minutes. Just the one mistake really in a lot of strong hockey as Petry and Jordie Benn had some soft coverage around the goal. The NHL doesn’t allow as much physical interference as they used to (as evidenced by a ridiculous call on Andrew Shaw for holding) but they do allow contact in front of the net. Petry and Benn have to be harder on their men on a play like this. The Flames have the puck behind the net and there is only one place that can go to lead to a goal, and that’s in front, so drill someone.
Are the Habs showcasing Armia for a trade? If not, why is he playing so much? It surely isn’t on merit. He plays the power play. He kills penalties. He also kills momentum and scoring chances. Armia is this year’s mystery meat. You know you don’t want it, but they keep feeding it to you.
The Habs have a decision to make coming soon. After the ninth game for Kotkaniemi, they’ll have to decide if they want to burn a year of his entry level contract by playing him in his 10th game. The word inside the organization is they are not concerned about losing a year of his ELC, but more concerned with game 40 which would burn a year of his seven years until he is eligible to become an unrestricted free agent. I believe the club will make this simple. If he can help the team win, then they will keep him. The fans have spoken massively in favour of Kotkaniemi staying in Montreal. In a Twitter poll question, they chose with an overwhelming majority that he stay with the Habs. Second choice was just higher for Finland, with few people favouring Laval as a destination.
My view is that Kotkaniemi in the NHL — where the play moves quickly, he gets few points, learns some hard lessons — is not the best place for him. I believe that he will best develop by owning the puck for another season in a lower league. In Finland, he will get huge minutes in the neighbourhood of 20. He will have possession of the puck for long periods of time, be able to take many more shots, improve his vision and gain more confidence. My call is back to Finland despite being extremely impressed with what I see from this player. He’s going to be a very strong centre in the NHL, but his best chance of being an all-star comes with developing his skills by possessing the puck at the age of 18. You can not develop puck skills by not having the puck. This decision doesn’t have to be after game nine. That’s not a big deal the way the second contract (RFA) moves into the third contract (UFA) these days anyway, but it should be before game 40.
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The coaching staff brought back some speed for this one after getting out-skated in Ottawa on Saturday. “Some” being the operative word, but not all. Karl Alzner played only one solid game before becoming a liability in game two, so a healthy Mete was back in the line-up. However, instead of the speed and offensive skill that Charles Hudon or Nikita Scherbak can bring, Claude Julien opted for Nicolas Deslauriers again. Deslauriers had some success on a bad hockey team last season, but he can’t keep up with this one. Deslauriers killed the Habs’ entire fourth line against the Senators. They went from effective the game before to non-existent and a complete non-factor. One of the great changes of this modern era of the game is it is four-line hockey. You can’t have a weak line or the other coach will match it with their best — and then you’re finished. Deslauriers had a nice run last season, but check the stats — he’s a journeyman. He’s 27 and his best goal season is 10. He barely had a 10-goal season in the QMJHL in his four years there. Great guy but Hudon is a great guy too. Some say he is a French guy, but Hudon is a French guy too. Scherbak could be a real player in there. He’s 22 and had a better than point-per-game average in Laval last season. If you want to help someone find their game, it’s not the 27-year-old journeyman — it’s the 22-year-old first-round draft choice who already figured things out in the AHL in a big way. This Deslauriers idea should end soon. Is it that they need a fighter? Do they think that? What year is this? They were 4-1-1 in their first six games without a fighter. Get a hockey player in there. It’s 2018. Don’t be old school. You have talented hockey players. Get one in there. The answer is not a player who averages four goals per season in his NHL career.
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