The Stanley Cup champions were at the Bell Centre as Phillip Danault continues to get test after test against some of the best centres in hockey. So far, Danault has been masterful handling the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Auston Matthews, Tyler Seguin, Sean Monahan and even Patrice Bergeron.
Danault is defining his role at the perfect time for an organization getting scoring down the middle coming soon in the form of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling, and already arrived and playing beautifully down the middle Max Domi.
On Thursday night, it was the Washington Capitals and Nicklas Backstrom — the challenge for Danault.
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It’s often joked that players will add some mustard to the tale of their first NHL goal years later, perhaps after retirement. A shot from the point that goes off your butt and then ricochets into the net becomes an end to end rush as history keeps adding a little lustre to the moment. For Jesperi Kotkaniemi, he does not need to add any lustre to his first NHL goal whatsoever. It was a beauty that time will begin with and time will not alter as Kotkaniemi skating open down the left side, looking at Braden Holtby, one of the best goalies in hockey, picking his spot, then ripping a howitzer into the top corner. It was perfection for his first in his career. The crowd was more enthusiastic than at any moment this year. The crowd was deafening when his name was called out. The smile could be seen all the way back to Finland. The 18-year-old put one on the board in his 12th NHL game. The rest of the night, he was skating on air. Confidence is an amazing thing. You could feel it coming out of every pore.
It is still hard to say whether Kotkaniemi wouldn’t be better served handling the puck all night in a lower league to develop his puck skills, but it is easy to say that this moment belonged in this season. Second period and Kotkaniemi continued his high level skills. He dummied all the defenders to him with a faked shot then fed over to Tomas Tatar. He had an open look but could not convert what appeared to be a sure goal. Third period and more brilliance from Kotkaniemi as he looks off defenders so adroitly that this does not seem possible for an 18-year-old to exhibit this much savvy about the game. Also third period, his second goal of his career as he was fighting in front of the net and trickled it home for the tying goal.
He has vision. He has smarts. When he gets good line-mates, he will have points, and a lot of them. Soon, he will also realize that he has time to handle the puck and at that moment, watch his play go up another three levels. It is extremely easy to see not too far into the future where Kotkaniemi has slowed the game down some in his head, learns what works even more with experience, and finds finisher Nick Suzuki on the right side for goal after goal after goal.
Suddenly, the Montreal Canadiens are a hockey team it appears at the centre position for years and years. Kotkaniemi with his first, and Max Domi has it all down the middle of the sheet. Domi with only 21 seconds remaining was absolutely flying down the sheet. He fired it high glove side and the Bell Centre erupted like it has not erupted in a very long time. It was an electric night. The celebration from Domi was spine tingling. He could not control his energy. The roar of the crowd took your breath away. Domi can handle his defensive responsibilities with aplomb and he loves to carry the puck up ice like a classic centre distributing to his wingers upon zone entry. He is making Jonathan Drouin come alive as a player. Domi is a bonus that GM Marc Bergevin dared not utter when training camp broke.
After trying Drouin at centre, the season previous where it just did not take well, there was nary a word about Domi heading into camp. Suddenly, on day one, he lines up in the middle, and everything changed for the Habs since. This team dying to find some strength there in mid-September starts November with Domi dominating, Kotkaniemi aspiring, and Danault defensively shutting down some of the best centres on the other team in the entire league. What a difference a year makes! And you can completely see it in the standings and on the ice. You cannot win in this game of hockey without controlling the middle of the sheet. Add, Ryan Poehling at Saint Cloud State, and it appears the middle of the sheet looks better than it has since 1997. Things might just be looking up here.
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Charles Hudon clearly should not be a player who is in the press box the odd contest. He was one of the more dominating players on the ice. This is a talent league now. There is just no other way to describe it. You do not need an enforcer. You do not need a check finisher. You do not need a guy who keeps the other teams honest. You need to roll four lines of your best talent. If your first line is full of first-line talent, outstanding. If your fourth line is full of second-line talent, outstanding too. If your fourth line is running around chasing the puck, but doing a super job of enforcing, then you are losing the game. The winner has the most goals; not the most won fights, or checks finished. Hudon wins one-on-one talent competitions all over the ice, all over the game. Hudon turns defenders inside out. He has the puck tied to his stick while doing spineramas and getting impressive shots on net. This must be obvious now and he should not see the press box again playing like this. In the third period, he set up Max Domi for a brilliant pass that left the net almost completely empty, but Domi found that one foot of it covered by an already beaten Holtby. Hudon was moved to the first line with Domi and Drouin and they were even better as a threesome than when Artturi Lehkonen was there.
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The line of Philip Danault, Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar is starting to play like the sum of the parts is better than the parts. This is the great hope when a head coach puts three players together — that they find a higher gear feeling chemistry with each other. That’s exactly what the Habs have here. Danault distributes to Tatar who distributes to Gallagher. Two gorgeous goals for the line where the passing was as good as the finishing. Gallagher with two tallies for nine goals on the season. So many wondered how could he possibly top the first 30 goal plateau in his career. The answer is that he sure has a chance to top it with nine goals on the campaign already in only 12 games. So that hand with nuts and bolts and screws and washers and dryers in it doesn’t seem to be bothering him too much!
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The fourth line just isn’t good enough with Andrew Shaw, Matthew Peca and Nicolas Deslauriers. Night after night so far since being re-inserted into the line-up, Deslauriers has been a part of what looks like an NHL player against an AHL player. They are pinned in shift after shift. Against a talented team like the Washington Capitals, it is even more lopsided. The press box is empty of talent right now with the injury to Paul Byron and Nikita Scherbak in Laval, but these two players have to replace two of the three on this line. Don’t forget that Shaw can play centre, and that might not be a bad idea with Scherbak and Byron when the team gets healthy. The solution is not a career minor-leaguer who caught lightning in a bottle last season.
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It was a rough night for Noah Juulsen. It happens. On one goal against, he simply tried to block a shot that rebounded straight to Lars Eller for the 1-1 goal. Another time, he was stripped of the puck leading to another goal by Eller. That’s sports. When you face the kind of pressure the Capitals come at you with shift after shift, it’s going to happen. Juulsen will understand the need to be clear of his check before trying to stick handle.
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One could point out the entire defensive corps of the Habs as well. The Caps have such fire power and they were in a mood to play in this one. It was the most entertaining game of the year. The Habs brought hunger and energy, and it was matched by a Capitals team. In the end, the Caps didn’t just bring energy, they brought their considerable talent that led them to win the Stanley Cup. You could certainly see all of the talent on display as they pressured the Habs defence so severely that for the first time this season, they looked overmatched. They didn’t look out of their league against the Leafs, Penguins, Bruins but against the Capitals, you could see the devastating talent on full display. No shame really. This is a Habs team that was 28th in the league last season, and they went toe-to-toe with a tremendous hockey team. This was a night to be impressed. The Habs didn’t look too far behind the champions who felt like playing like champions in this one.
On the farm, reports are that Jake Evans is finding his way in the American Hockey League. The collegian all-American is playing strong hockey for the Laval Rocket as he moves up the depth chart. He is getting more ice time and even some power-play time as he continues to impress. Nikita Scherbak played his first game in Laval which was a conditioning stint after missing the first 11 games of the Habs season. Scherbak said he felt a little rusty for the contest. He needs to find his better self soon at the NHL level because there is a spot available for him without question when you watch the struggling fourth line.
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No horse or goat for Carey Price but it cannot be faulted. The quality of shot was extremely high that he faced. Capitals snipers were firing uncontested from 10 feet all night. There is nothing a goalie can do when the opportunities are that golden. Price will get heat when he deserves it. It is Montreal after all, but not when he made some tremendous saves and was left on an island against the world’s best players too often. Pick another night to hammer him, like one where he is bad on easy shots.
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Joel Armia has never scored a power-play goal in his entire career. The Habs have had him on the power play this entire season. He has been mostly on the first power-play unit. Did I mention that Armia has never, ever scored with the extra man. You would think that would happen by accident once, but nope. Maybe it’s a good idea to not have him out there. There’s this young kid with vision and smarts who seems to create beautifully. It would be a good opportunity to see what the 18-year-old can do with the best scorers on the power play, and it wouldn’t get anyone’s nose out of joint as it wouldn’t upset the line structure. Or hey, you could just stick with “zero goals” Armia.