After 10 games last season, the Montreal Canadiens were already so deep in the hole it was clear that they were not getting out. It was obvious early that it would be a difficult season.
The Habs in the first 10 games last year won only twice for five points out of the 20 available — now contrast that with this season where the Habs are shockingly good. They’ve already beaten teams like the Pittsburgh Penguins twice and the Bruins in Boston.
The Habs have six wins on the board already and have amassed 14 points out of the 20 available. That’s an impressive nine-point swing.
Games 11 to 20 last season were the best stretch the Habs had the entire year with 13 out of a possible 20 points. So while it looks positive for the Habs, it is these next 10 games that the club must separate itself from the events of last year once and for all.
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The Habs had an outstanding first period and the best player of the opening 20 minutes was Charles Hudon. He is now one of those in-and-out-of-the-lineup players and that is a shame. He brings speed and skill to his line. When he is out of the lineup, the fourth line is simply abysmal. When he is in it, he elevates everyone on his line’s game. Nicolas Deslauriers had his best period of the season in the first. He can thank Hudon for backing up defenders and winning the zone. The Habs need more speed and skill and Hudon fits that bill. Hudon also makes the second power play unit better. He rang a superb shot off of the post. Hudon would be a good match with Jesperi Kotkaniemi, not Joel Armia slowing Kotkaniemi down all the time.
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Phillip Danault was tasked again with leading the charge against one of the best lines in the NHL. Jamie Benn, Tyler Seguin, and Alex Radulov have almost all the scoring points at forward on the Dallas Stars. Usually, if you stop that Dallas line, you beat the Stars. Danault did most of the work against Seguin. He was helped naturally by his line-mates Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar. All three handled their assignment extremely well, but in this case, it wasn’t enough to beat the Stars as other Dallas players chipped in for a change.
It’s always Gallagher who comes through when the moment looks bleak. He doesn’t know what it means to get dejected enough to lower his work rate. Gallagher doing his usual work in the crease and around it to break the shutout. Gallagher is one of the smallest players in this league, yet he is in the dirtiest areas all the time. Having the necessary courage to take pain isn’t a size issue; it’s a heart issue and Gallagher is on the all-heart world team. He must be in such pain when he lays his head on the pillow, but he just doesn’t care. He goes out there the next time and invites a whole new round of pain.
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Artturi Lehkonen is a strong hockey player. With that said, that was one of the worst penalty shots that you will ever see. Lehkonen went to the one side which is a good strategy that many employ. The obvious benefit is then you cut across to the other side and now the goalie has to make sure that he moves laterally with the puck and doesn’t lose his angles. Smart. However, Lehkonen forgot to cross over to the other side. He ended up taking the shot as if he was coming off the wing when the centre was, of course, wide open so he could look at all four corners. He then went for the five hole which is the worst look when the goalie is ready. This attempt was abysmal start to finish. With that said, Lehkonen is a very strong hockey player and he needs to go back to breakaway school to relearn that class. Lehkonen compounded his bad night with an absolutely crucial giveaway that led to the Stars shorthanded goal. It made it 3-1 and it took the Habs momentum away that they had finally created. Lehkonen wants this entire game back.
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The Habs penalty kill always has Karl Alzner on it when he is in the line-up. The Habs gave up one power play goal and another just after a power play had ended. Alzner is not fast enough to kill penalties. Not only does he not win puck battles, he doesn’t even really try to win puck battles. Modern penalty killing is simple. Rule number one is never give the attacker time to get set up. If he can’t get set up, he can’t leave you in a disadvantage in numbers. Alzner doesn’t have it in him skills-wise to make sure that rule number one is followed. The Habs penality killing was amongst the very worst in the league last season, and without your top defenders out there to take time and space away, that is going to continue this season.
A rare tough night for Mike Reilly this season. The Stars bring the bulk to the arena and is not Reilly’s favourite thing. He often got outmuscled for the puck. The game of hockey is moving more and more in the favour of what Reilly brings to the rink, but the odd night, it doesn’t favour his desire to skate and move, more than his desire to battle and to muscle.
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Armia is where Kotkaniemi’s good plays go to die. First period, Kotkaniemi lays a gorgeous pass on to the tape to Armia and he’s got a gorgeous one-timer opportunity on the lateral pass. Ben Bishop will have to re-set and it won’t been easy for the Stars goalie. Armia, instead, stick handles twice or three times, and by the time he is ready to shoot, he does not even get a shot off to the goal at all because the defenders have closed him down. It should have been a one-timer and perhaps a goal. Second period, and there is Armia with the puck and the pass to Kotkaniemi is such an obvious one as he is heading towards goal and Armia doesn’t connect it. He just dumps it in. Does he not see Kotkaniemi? Does he have no hockey sense? Armia was a good player in Winnipeg. Watching him with the Jets, he fit in nicely on a very good hockey team. He should have come here and really fit in, but he just doesn’t seem to be connecting with anyone. Bergevin brings Max Domi in and he seems to be in the centre of everything: engaged and involved both on and off the ice. It seems like Domi has been here forever. He fits right in. Armia is the opposite of that. It’s hard to know what the kid Kotkaniemi can do playing with Armia. It’s like the Habs are shorthanded each time they go out there.
Armia is a passenger. Deslauriers would love not to be a passenger. He would love for last season to come back to him, but this team is faster and he can’t keep up. These are two players who are limited. Their role in the lineup with these limitations can’t be a guarantee. It’s time for the head coach to give Nikita Scherbak a game in the Habs 12th game of the season on Thursday at home against Washington. They say a coach doesn’t want to change a winning lineup, so here we are — they lost. Change the line up. The likelihood is that his change is Andrew Shaw back in for Deslauriers. The Habs have scored more than expected this season, but there will come a time that they need some scoring and Scherbak is that player. Perhaps Scherbak will draw in due to the lower-body injury that Byron suffered in the second period.
General Manager Marc Bergevin met the media on Monday basically because he was in a good mood. Why shouldn’t he be with all of the changes he made that have had positive results? It was mostly a feel good session with little news coming out of it. Praise for Carey Price was followed by praise for all of the players in front of Price. There were good thoughts of attitude and tenacious hard work. It was the usual, essentially. However, there was one piece of news that only a GM can provide and that is his plan for Kotkaniemi. Bergevin says that he is pleased with the young centreman’s development and has no intentions to change Kotkaniemi’s status with the NHL club. Kotkaniemi passes the first hurdle to stay this season which was the 10th game.
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The next hurdle is game 40 where the first year of his countdown to unrestricted free agency would be ignited. It is a remarkable ascension for a player not rated even in first round at this time last season. Now he is one of just a small handful to make it to game 11 out of the 2018 draft. Others who have survived the cut so far are Rasmus Dahlin of the Buffalo Sabres, Andrei Svechnikov of the Carolina Hurricanes. and Isac Lundestrom of the Anaheim Ducks. On the path to staying in the NHL are Evan Bouchard of the Edmonton Oilers, who has played seven games, and Brady Tkachuk, who was injured after playing six games for the Ottawa Senators. It’s a small field of success, and the Habs are thrilled that their man Kotkaniemi has four assists in his first 10 games. Interesting to note of the four players who have past the 10-game test, only the 18-year-old Hab is a plus player. Kotkaniemi was plus 3 after 10 games.
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The possession metrics are quite revealing for the Canadiens for the first 10 games. They provide few surprises. They instead provide verification that your eye test is accurate. The top man on the team in Corsi is Tatar. Other notables are Benn playing outstanding hockey so far this season with the second best Corsi on the team and Gallagher is third. Danault is fourth, which is an outstanding number as he gets mostly defensive zone starts and faces the best centres in hockey, including Sidney Crosby, Auston Matthews and Patrice Bergeron. Xavier Ouellet is fifth after showing what a solid addition he has been to the club. Kotkaniemi is sixth and that is also remarkable considering how much it shows, though he may be struggling offensively still to carry the puck and impact the offence, that he is an extremely intelligent player finding himself on the safe side of the puck often. Kotkaniemi is also getting a bit of help from the head coach with mostly offensive-zone starts. At the bottom of the Corsi statistics, we find Deslauriers who is miles lower than the second worst Matthew Peca and third worst Alzner. If you’ve watched the first 10 games this season, you can clearly see how these analytics have value. They tell an honest tale.
Fans booed Alex Radulov every single time that he touched the puck. Usually this is unnecessary and in bad taste. When they booed Mark Streit, who wanted desperately to stay in Montreal but could not get an offer, it was one of those moments that was hard to figure out. With Radulov, bring all the boos and jeers that you can muster. When your throat gets sore, buy some lozenges and get back at it. Bergevin took Radulov when he was in the KHL and no one was interested in him because of a terrible reputation on about three different behavioural fronts. Radulov repaid him by demanding an eight-year contract at mid-season, and then post season demanded more from the Habs than any other team. Bergevin said about that signing season “If you want loyalty, get a dog.” Radulov took the better tax situation in Dallas and that is of course his right. It’s also the fans right to boo a guy who kept saying how much he loved it here and how they were the very best fans, and then left. That’s sports. If you’re gonna be that guy, then that guy gets booed.