Call of the Wilde: Winning the middle, winning the game

The Montreal Canadiens had two line-up changes for the visit to Boston to face the Bruins.

One was a change forced upon them, thanks to an upper-body injury to Noah Juulsen that resulted in Karl Alzner getting back into the line-up. The other was a change that was a decision from the head coach who didn’t like the work of Andrew Shaw taking two costly minor penalties in Buffalo, so he was sat for Charles Hudon to draw back in.

Nikita Scherbak hits game 10 and he still has not played a single minute this season.

Wilde Horses

There has not been a special line in Montreal for a long time and this may seem a bit premature, and it may well be in the end, but you get the feeling that Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin and Artturi Lehkonen have the chance to be something special.

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The line is keyed by the Domi’s shocking ability to play the centre position as if he has his entire life. Moved from the wing to centre to start the season, most thought this was going to be another abysmal, failed experiment to turn a winger into a centre, much like Drouin last season.

However, it hasn’t worked out that way at all.

Domi is having zero difficulty with being a solid defensive centre and he is also lighting it up offensively. He’s also turning around the fortunes of Drouin, who hasn’t played better hockey than right now since arriving in Montreal. Lehkonen is the perfect complement as a player who does not give an inch to anyone and is terribly difficult to handle on the forecheck. Domi is solid defensively; Lehkonen is solid defensively. The result is that Drouin is allowed to roam freely and create with the puck like he can.

As a professional hockey line, the three of them work together perfectly. You don’t get the feeling — and this is a first in Montreal in a long time — that they can be dominated by any other line.

Domi continues to lead the team in scoring this season. This is a player who got only five goals all last season in Phoenix with a goalie in the opposition net. This season, he has hit that total already, and we aren’t even out of the month of October yet. Remarkable.

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Most didn’t give Brendan Gallagher a chance to duplicate his 31-goal season last year, with most thinking of it as an outlier. Gallagher has played 10 games this season and already has six goals this year. It’s early to extrapolate on numbers, but if you were to try, Gallagher would be in line for a 48-goal season.

Now, he obviously is not going to get that number, but it is beginning to look like that remarkable 31-goal total for Gallagher is not an outlier at all. It’s easy to see him with a second 30-goal campaign in his career.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Another win

Jesperi Kotkaniemi continues to impress with his hockey sense and awareness at such a young age.

Eighteen-year-olds aren’t supposed to be this intelligent. He’s having some difficulty getting implicated in the play regularly now, but he makes up for it with an acumen that belies his age. Midway through the second period, Karl Alzner decided to go deep behind the net in the Bruins’ zone. From what we know about Alzner, there is no way that he is getting back in the play as a defender with any effectiveness. Kotkaniemi knows that, too, and he is actually the last man back, even behind the Habs’ defender, as he breaks up what would have been an odd-man rush — perhaps even a 3 on 1 — to end the Bruins danger.

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This on-ice awareness just isn’t supposed to be possible for an 18-year-old.

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He’s one of the smartest players that I have ever seen at his age. He is not the most skilled at his age, certainly, but the hockey brain that he possesses virtually guarantees that he is going to be a very effective NHL player for a long time.

The Habs completely nailed this pick. It took guts to pick at three-overall a player who wasn’t even in the top-30 rankings to start the season, but they chose only what they saw and didn’t worry about others’ opinions or rankings. They took the best player and he happened to be a centre, meeting a two-decade long need. He doesn’t have the puck on his stick a lot early in his career here, though his numbers were actually better in this one than they had been for possession time, but when he does have the puck, his decision-making is impeccable.

What a marvelous bonus for the Habs, who likely thought this player would arrive ready for the league in two seasons.

Credit to the entire coaching staff for the work they did on the line matchups. The Bruins have one of the best trios in all of hockey with Patrice Bergeron centring Brad Marchand and David Pastrnak. This is a line that chews everyone up, night after night. The Habs bench coaches worked hard to make sure they protected Kotkaniemi and had Phillip Danault at the ready to do what he does effectively defensively to neutralize some of the best players in the game.

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What’s shocking so far this season is that the Habs, who were once the laughing stock of the league down the middle even last year, have beaten Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin twice this season already, and now add Bergeron to the mix. When you ask yourself why the Habs have lost only twice in regulation in 10 games this season, look to the centre of the ice, where Domi, Kotkaniemi, Danault, and Peca are vastly superior to what they stumbled out of the gate with last season.

Look to Phillip Danault in the shutdown role. He can neutralize some the best in the game.

Carey Price is now the second goalie in Montreal Canadiens’ history in terms of wins, with 290, passing Patrick Roy. What a night to pass Roy, winning in Boston with a shutout against a talented Bruins club. Only Jacques Plante has more wins with 314 for the Habs. That is obviously a feat that Price will attain, perhaps as early as this season, considering the surprising way things are going for this club that does not look like they’ll be drafting top five again this season.

No need to pick out one defenceman over another defenceman. Pick them all as heroes in this one. The Bruins can put a lot of goals on the board, but the Habs made it a very easy night for Price. He made a couple of thrilling stops, but overall, he did not have a busy night.

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Defenders like Jordie Benn and Mike Reilly are miles better than they were last season. The addition of Xavier Ouellet, who is not flashy but solid, has also been huge for the Habs’ fortunes.

WATCH: What should happen to Kotkaniemi? 

Click to play video: 'Call of the Wilde'
Call of the Wilde

It’s been extremely interesting to watch how talent is prevailing in today’s NHL. Look at Charles Hudon vs. Andrew Shaw, for example. Hudon was in for Shaw in this one, after Shaw got the hook for two stupid penalties in Buffalo. Shaw is a hard-nosed player and he had his time in Chicago being an influence for the Hawks in their Stanley Cup runs.

Shaw is now finding the game passing him by. He is not fast enough; he does not bring enough skill. Hudon is a better player for the Habs on that fourth line. He also has a brighter future than Shaw. This will be a difficult decision for Claude Julien this season, because he knows what it means to not upset the veteran apple cart, but he will come to Hudon over Shaw as the season progresses.

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He will have to. He’ll need the talent to win games.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Late-game heroics

Wilde Goats

There are fans who like Nicolas Deslauriers, with some of the reasons being that he finishes his checks, or that he keeps the opposition honest with his toughness.

These are thoughts that belong in the year 2012.

No one on the opposition changes his game anymore, because he is worried players are going to finish their check on him. Talent is what wins games now. All four lines have to be able to bring the play to the opposition with skill. Win all of the line matchups by having better talent on all of the lines. You can’t get in a fourth line versus first line matchup and find that you are overwhelmed because you have a player out there chasing the puck all the time, but he keeps his opposition honest because if he gets mad, he can beat you up.

No one is afraid of being beat up out there.

The game has moved past that attitude. How many fights have the Habs been in this season? Exactly. It’s not the game anymore. Get talent out there. Nikita Scherbak needs to play. Deslauriers brings nothing to the game that changes the course of the game.

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READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Overtime Madness

WATCH: Call of the Wilde: 4 wins so far

Click to play video: 'Call of the Wilde: 4 wins so far'
Call of the Wilde: 4 wins so far

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Special K

Wilde Cards 

With his 10th game of the season, Jesperi Kotkaniemi ignited the first year of his three-year entry level contract.

This means that his next contract begins as soon as 2021. This is his restricted free agent contract that will pay him significantly more than the contract he just signed. When the collective bargaining agreement first put this ’10 game’ caveat in, general managers were extremely reluctant to allow a rookie to play game 10 of the season, preferring to push their rookies back to the junior ranks.

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As time has moved on, though, GMs have realized that money is the only loss when you let your player engage in game 10 of the season. You don’t lose your player, you just pay him the big money sooner. The real difficult decision is actually game 40, because it’s on that night that a team’s rookie gets credit for a full season played in the NHL.

That means one season is used up of his seven seasons before he becomes an unrestricted free agent. So the next target for Kotkaniemi is game 40. This will be a much harder decision for Marc Bergevin. Stay tuned.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: What happens in Vegas stays in Vegas

Nick Suzuki continues to tear it up in the juniors with the Owen Sound Attack.

Suzuki, the first-round draft choice the Habs acquired for Max Pacioretty, has played 12 games this season. He has 10 goals and 9 assists for 19 points. People scouting the Attack this season say that his shot is unstoppable. Suzuki is quite likely to be a winger when he comes to the NHL. The Habs are suddenly strong at centre and he has the composition as a player more as a shooter, and more offensive.

It really is quite an accomplishment how quickly Bergevin has turned this around. The empty well is filling up quickly.


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