With only one loss in their first eight games, the Montreal Canadiens are one of the big surprises of this season so far.
The Buffalo Sabres are also playing surprisingly good hockey with a five and four record on the year. The supposedly weak Atlantic Division has six teams of eight better than .500 on the season.
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The Sabres big turnaround was expected with the addition of the first pick overall in the draft Rasmus Dahlin, but they’ve also been disappointed with Casey Mittlestadt, of whom much was expected. He had only one assist on the year in nine games.
The affair in Buffalo was also the ninth game of the season for Jesperi Kotkaniemi as he hits the threshold to ignite the first year of his entry level contract. The next game in Boston would be Kotkaniemi’s 10th game and would mean one year of his three-year contract would be burned.
The work of Max Domi down the middle is changing this team and changing what the future might look like down the middle for the next five years. Domi was supposed to be just a stop gap at the centre position, but with his goal only a minute into the contest with a rapid move and an even more rapid ripped shot into the top corner, he became the leading scorer on the Habs. In the third period, when Domi broke through the defence and snapped another home, he solidified that scoring lead. Domi has a five-game point streak with four goals and three assists. Domi had five goals all season with a goalie in the net last year in Arizona and nine overall. The centre future is Domi, Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling. Nick Suzuki is an option but probably a winger and Phillip Danault as a defensive specialist. That makes four or five solid centres for a team that hasn’t had this type of strength down the middle for 20 years. How do you put Domi back to the wing if he keeps shining like this? It felt like the plan was Poehling as the second-line centre, but he might just be the third-line centre going forward with Kotkaniemi growing into his role as top gun with Domi also “Top Gun 1A.” A deep well of nothing down the middle last season has already filled into a potential treasure. This is hard to believe, but it’s happening. All you have to do is watch in Montreal and also a small town in the state of Minnesota to see Poehling play an outstanding 200-foot game down the middle. Oh, and not even mentioned in all of this is a centre many see as an NHLer as well who is playing Swedish first division Jacob Olofsson. He just happened to score his first goal of the year Thursday.
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Jonathan Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen are the linemates of Domi and are they ever enjoying the ride. Drouin has his confidence back and is making moves that only he can on the club. Early in the first period, Drouin brilliantly toe-drags the defender to skate right on past him then fires a ripped shot just past the top corner. Lehkonen was a force on the first Habs goal with a ton of speed to win the initial puck battle. All three of the line reading each other’s movements and trends, finding each other with no-look passes, aggressive on the forecheck and intelligent on the back check. They’re making it look very easy and made the Sabres look very slow.
A massive goal for the Habs late in the second when they were being dominated. Kotkaniemi beat the icing and kept the play alive. That allowed Joel Armia to sneak it out of the pile and go behind the net, come out the other side to give the Habs the lead. Armia, Kotkaniemi, and Paul Byron has been the third best line most nights this season, so that was a welcome relief for all three players.
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Antti Niemi was the star of the game for the Habs. He gave them a chance when they really didn’t deserve one. The Habs were dominated for large stretches of the game, and the challenges were many. He has been a shocking positive since early last season when his save percentage hovered around .800 with two teams that gave up on him. In the end, he didn’t get it done with Armia and took a silly penalty, allowing a Buffalo power play for a late winner. Still though, Niemi has been reliable thanks to his tremendous desire to keep working on his game and Stephane Waite, a talented goalie coach to work on it with him. The shots on goal in this one were 42-22. The result of the contest was just. Buffalo deserved the win.
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The easy thing to do is “goat” the fourth line of Matthew Peca, Andrew Shaw, and Nicolas Deslauriers. In the second period, they were pinned into their own zone for the entire 50 seconds of their shift. That hasn’t happened this entire season to an 18-year-old Finnish kid — and it should happen to him a little at least; it would be only natural. Instead of pointing at the fourth-line players, who two-thirds of simply aren’t fast enough, let’s point the finger at the head coach for his roster decisions. The Habs are doing a strong job of playing modern hockey this season. That much is clear. All you have to do is look at their record. However, they could be even better with a fourth line that doesn’t go out there to lose the momentum every three and a half minutes. Charles Hudon was playing well and he certainly didn’t do anything wrong to lose his spot on the starting grid. Nikita Scherbak has a lot of talent, and it is extremely hard to imagine that he would do worse than Deslauriers. Two changes on the fourth line is the right call. It’s impossible to look at how effective this line was in Buffalo and think otherwise.
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Noah Juulsen wears the goat horns on the Sabres equalizer. He tries a high risk pass in the neutral zone that leads to a turnover, then he compounds his original mistake by pushing forward on a low-probability attempt at stopping the play. He gets turned by Jeff Skinner which leads to a two-on-one that is finished by Jason Pomminville. One-on-one on a play that certainly did not look dangerous. The Sabres deserved the goal though. They had dominated the play for the entire second period.
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Shaw’s holding penalty that led to the Sabres second goal was everything that is wrong with favouring this type of player now. Shaw just didn’t have the wheels to stay with the play and in a moment of desperation took his hand off the stick and put it on his opponent to slow him down. This is simply not allowed, and if you had the wheels at centre ice, 100 feet from the goal, you would know that you simply do not have to commit this foul. It is a skater’s game now, and it’s getting more and more a skater’s game. Shaw’s time may not be long for this league now, except for his contract and reputation will continue to be in his favour. Shaw continued his subpar night by taking an obvious too many men on the ice penalty. It was pretty clear that his winger was not off the ice yet when he stepped on. We know this because he would obviously be watching him go to the bench to know it was his turn. Shaw touched the puck and the Habs were forced to kill off a needless two-minute penalty.
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The Habs got a terrible scare in the second period when Brendan Gallagher took a shot in the left hand again. This hand simply can’t go through much more considering it is essentially being held together by screws, nuts, bolts, duct tape and willpower. Gallagher left for half of the period to receive medical treatment, and the worry was high that it was the same problem, but he came back for the power play late in the second period. And breathe.
The Habs record after nine games is five wins, two losses and two overtime losses. The Habs have 12 of a possible 18 points. Let’s compare that to the carnage of last season. The Habs opened with a win in a shootout in Buffalo, then lost seven games in a row. The worst of it was a 6-1 road loss in Washington, then a three game home stand where the Habs lost 5-2 to San Jose, 5-1 to Los Angeles and 6-2 to Anaheim. While fans would be pleased if the Habs won every game, the difference between last season and this is like night and day. However, that is just the start. There is a ton of hockey left, but no one will say that this isn’t more enjoyable and more interesting.