If you would have been told before the season began that the Tampa Bay Lightning and Montreal Canadiens would be playing for first place in the Atlantic Division on November 3, you would not have believed it.
The Lightning at the top of the standings was an easy prediction, but the Canadiens were supposed to be only ahead of Ottawa at this juncture. The excitement was high for the Habs game at the Bell Centre on Saturday night after the most entertaining game in years on Thursday — a last-minute win over the Washington Capitals.
WATCH: The habs are two games into their long stretch at home, Global’s hockey analyst Brian Wilde breaks down the key plays of the week.
- Max Domi had nine goals last season. That’s the entire season. That’s from October to April. This season, it is November 3, and Domi already has seven goals, and that is not only one of the biggest surprises this campaign in Montreal, but one of the shockers of the entire National Hockey League. In contrast, Steven Stamkos scored his third of the season for the Lightning. Domi has a jump in his stride that he didn’t have since he was the best forward at the World Junior Championship in Montreal and Toronto before he even became a pro. The goals are a terrific bonus, but the real win is how he is playing the centre position. It is going to be extremely interesting to see how the middle of the ice shakes out as the years pass. Domi is looking like a first-line centre and suddenly the Habs are rich at the position with Jesperi Kotkaniemi already arriving at 18 years of age and Ryan Poehling shining at Saint Cloud State with two goals on Friday night. Add defensive specialist Phillip Danault to the mix shutting down some of the best centres on the other team, and the Habs suddenly have the makings of something special. So that’s two trades won trades by GM Marc Bergevin and two first-round choices by Trevor Timmins. That’s a recipe for success.
- Jesperi Kotkaniemi is ready for some tougher assignments, or at least, it sure would be exciting to see if he is ready for them. He certainly appeared ready when he was given an opportunity on the power play. He had the puck at his own blue line with a checker all over him. He deftly lost his check three times then made a simple pass at the blue line to gain the zone. What was noteworthy about it was that it didn’t take a lot of hockey talent, but it took a lot of hockey intelligence. Kotkaniemi is showing a knowledge of the play and a vision for the game that is simply stunning. One keeps asking themselves watching Kotkaniemi, “how can this kid be 18?” Before the draft, when there was so much anxiety over this kid who was completely off the radar becoming the Habs’ selection. People lamented fearfully that he could not skate well enough. But you cannot say even one time this season that he doesn’t possess enough pace. He skates well enough. He is never behind the play. He is never chasing the play. He is never in the wrong place. It does not seem possible. It is actually hard to believe that he could look so much like he belongs. It is extremely difficult to make an impression in this league at 18, and he is actually a young 18 with a July birthdate. If he develops at this pace, the Habs have a star in the making. They seriously do. Imagine that? Winning at the draft is about recognizing progression versus stagnation. Players that stagnate like Filip Zadina, drop down and players like Kotkaniemi rise up in their rankings. How can one possibly argue that the Habs made the wrong choice at this point? It was a massive pick in the fortunes of the Habs. You cannot miss at three overall. You need a centrepiece player, and they nailed it.
- Tomas Tatar is another player who Bergevin brought in that has found a home in Montreal. It really was the summer of Marc after a horrendous year. Tatar is only 27 years of age and has a lot of hockey left in his game. He is playing at his peak level and would do well to find the 20 goal plateau. It is possible as the Habs line of Danault, Tatar and Gallagher are winning at both ends of the ice. Tatar has an excellent work rate. He is implicated in the play more often than Max Pacioretty, the player Bergevin let go to Las Vegas. Add Nick Suzuki and a second-round draft pick to the trade and again, it really was the summer of Marc.
- Jeff Petry can be an enigma. He has so much talent, but he has one issue: he needs to be motivated or his play drops off. Petry’s best hockey with the Canadiens was early in his stay when he was the best defenceman in his second year with the club in the playoffs. He had a series against Tampa Bay when he dominated. When Petry knows it is important, then he is outstanding. When he goes to sleep, he really is a hibernating bear. Right now, Petry is playing with hunger. He is playing terrific hockey. He is finding his teammates with excellent passes when the Habs have the offensive zone won. He’s skating brilliantly as he always does. He is even showing grit which is his overall weakness. Petry is soon going to make it difficult to know what to do with the right side of the blue line. Josh Brook is perhaps the best defenceman in the Western Hockey League right now. He may be ready as soon as next year and he is 100 per cent an NHLer. Shea Weber, Jeff Petry, Noah Juulsen and Josh Brook are all on the right side and one is going to have to take a seat soon. That’s going to be a very hard call for the organization. It’s a great problem to have.
- The transformation of Jordie Benn is stunning. He had a terrific first season with the Habs. He didn’t look like he belonged in the NHL in his second season. In his third season, he is back to being strong again. It’s hard to understand what happened to him when he was horrible or what has happened that he is good again. Sometimes you don’t have an answer and in this case, it would be difficult to find a cause for the resurgence of Benn. All you can do is simply enjoy it and hope it lasts.
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- This is Phillip Danault’s best hockey since he became a pro. Danault may not hit the 40-point plateau, but he is a better player despite not likely hitting that marker this year. Danault is near the top of the plus-minus statistic, second overall. He is top five in Corsi as well. This facing the best of the best centres in all of hockey, and taking care of the defensive zone starts almost every time out. He makes nothing but smart plays all night, every night. He doesn’t have the best hands, but he is extremely useful. He is a 200-foot centre in its truest sense. If he could give you 15 more points a season, he would make six or seven million per year. He has a spot on this Habs team for years to come taking care of the dirty business on the defensive side that makes the offensive stars look like heroes. That is what makes a team. Everyone doing what they do best and not everyone doing the same thing best.
- There were enough shots in this game for two games, yet the score was low thanks to amazing goaltending. The Lightning’s Andrei Vasilevsky withstood a first-period barrage while Carey Price had the crowd chanting his name again “Carey! Carey!” Price hasn’t had to steal a game this season. He had to on this night, but the Tampa keeper stole it instead. No fault of Price. The other goalie sometimes shines too.
- It was an extremely well-played game by two outstanding hockey teams so far this season. The difference between the two teams was the power play. The Habs power play is a mess at the moment. The Canadiens have gone 15 straight not scoring with an extra man. It doesn’t have to be this way either. They are so much better at zone entries than they were last season. Max Domi entering the zone effectively is a vast improvement. However, the manpower choices are bad and don’t help the cause even slightly. Andrew Shaw gets power play time. Joel Armia gets out on the first unit every single time. Kotkaniemi gets very little ice time on the power play. His vision is outstanding, picking passes to teammates that others can’t see. Even Claude Julien said after the game Thursday that Kotkaniemi can find players in the seam like few can, so where is he? He has to be on the first unit. It’s hard to understand why the five best offensive players Montreal has aren’t on the first unit together. If something isn’t working 15 times in a row, isn’t it time to try someone else? They used Kotkaniemi on the point which seemed to work. Put him with Petry, and then Domi, Jonathan Drouin, and your player who has nine goals already this season: Brendan Gallagher. Armia has never scored a power-play goal in his NHL career. He should not be out there. Get the right people out there and at least have a chance at this. Don’t complicate this with pluggers who when they get a chance, can’t finish it. The other obvious improvement that the club will make is Shea Weber will return. There is no shot from the point that gets enough respect, so penalty killers naturally play down low. When Weber returns, the opposition will be forced to make a difficult choice to stop Weber or to stop the plays down low. A great power play has all the options and right now the Habs don’t have a key option. No doubt, reporters will be tracking the PP percentage before Weber and after Weber returns. Also, no doubt it will improve.
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- There’s a lot of debate on the future of Nikita Scherbak. On the one hand, one is certainly responsible for his own self, and his success or failure is mostly incumbent upon him. On the other hand, one is to be given an opportunity to find that success — a fair shake they call it. It’s not necessary to discuss the personal responsibility half of this equation. We all can understand that in our lives, but in the teamwork environment that is hockey, you also need some support. Let’s contrast Nicolas Deslauriers and Nikita Scherbak as our case study. In one corner, we have a journeyman forward who has not found any NHL success except the lightning in a bottle he caught last year with a 10-goal season, and who parlayed that into a contract with Marc Bergevin. Deslauriers this season has reverted back to the form that he has had in his entire career. On the new fast-paced Habs this season, Deslauriers cannot keep up. He has played seven games and has been pinned in his own zone for seven games. He has been the biggest reason that the fourth line has completely collapsed. In the other corner, we have a first-round draft choice Scherbak who had the best points per game in the American Hockey League last season and is on the cusp of figuring it out at the next level. He is doing the natural progression of many hundreds before him — dominate at one level and move up to the next level. Except Scherbak has been given no opportunity this season at the higher level. He sat for ten games while Deslauriers played poorly, and now he’s getting criticized by his Laval head coach for not dominating at the AHL level after sitting for a full month without a game. There can sometimes be a bias that organizations have, especially when expectations are not met. When you’re surprised by someone like Deslauriers you make the mistake of giving them a contract. You’re so happy, you think you found this suddenly blossoming 25-goal scorer. When you’re disappointed with someone like Scherbak who isn’t elevating at the rate you would like, you make the mistake of not playing him at all, and giving him no opportunity, then compounding it by dog-housing him at even the lower level. Will Scherbak turn into an NHL player? Usually, the best PPG in the AHL has some NHL in him. The answer to what Scherbak’s future looks like is difficult to know. One thing is certain though, he needs a little support in the form of games played on the Habs fourth line, and a little bit of leeway to make a mistake when he gets there. It seems a fair deal when you consider Deslauriers basically can’t get out of his own zone for seven games.
- The future is looking brighter and brighter for the Habs. A first-round draft choice for the Vegas Golden Knights, Nick Suzuki is the top Habs prospect not yet playing in the NHL. Suzuki is lighting up the Ontario Hockey League for a third straight season. This year is his best so far as he has played in 14 games with 11 goals and 11 assists. Suzuki is on pace for 120 points this season. He is a sniper, and even better, he is a right shot. It is easy to see Suzuki receiving outstanding forehand passes from Jesperi Kotkaniemi for a decade, and sniping them home. It’s easy to see Suzuki helping the power play as well. The drafts of Trevor Timmins and the recovery of Marc Bergevin as a GM have turned around what was looking quite grim only six months ago. Suzuki is one of the key pieces; Kotkaniemi another. Two men doing their job well, and the results are obvious.
- The Habs announced that Paul Byron’s lower-body injury is so significant that he will not make the trip to New York for games on Monday and Tuesday. The Habs certainly miss Byron as the fourth line is struggling terribly.
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