Call of the Wilde: Strong comeback spirit
A quick two-game road trip for the Montreal Canadiens through New York to face the Islanders on Monday and the Rangers on Tuesday. Both are good tests to show if the Habs can win the games that are against supposedly easier competition.
The Habs have shone nicely against the upper-echelon teams showing they can compete with anyone, but another test for a club is how they handle the expectedly lower-echelon teams to see if they are definitely a cut above.
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They are off to Brooklyn first to see if they are indeed better than the New York Islanders who are also off to a surprisingly strong start. The Isles have five straight wins heading into their date with the Habs and lead the Metropolitan Division early in the campaign.
Jonathan Drouin seems to be wearing a bull’s eye in the Montreal media these days. Cries of “Bench him” or even “Put him in the press box” can be heard on the radio and on the catwalk — which is a little unusual for a player who is on pace for career highs. Drouin has hit in his career a top mark of 53 points.
Drouin can do better than that. He has the stick skills to be a 65-point player. He’s more likely to find a regular plateau at 55 to 60 points, and that would be the total of a solid contributor. It’s early certainly but Drouin is on pace for a career high. He fired a remarkable shot into the top corner in the first period. Players who are mostly puck possession players — but not 200-foot players — often face the wrath of the media. Max Pacioretty was often cited for being just a goal scorer. Drouin is a point producer. That’s what he is designed to be. Truth is he is never going to be a terribly strong 200-foot player or an amazing back checker. That’s the way it is in hockey because sometimes all you really need is a goal. Could he do more? Yes, he could. But if he is going to the press box for punishment, then he’s going to another team in a trade right after because that won’t fly. Don’t expect the press box, but also don’t expect some of the media to come off the ledge over Drouin either. Looks like that is his plight here, sadly.
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It’s a regular occurrence for Max Domi to be in the Wilde Horses. Domi was the player of the month for October and he hasn’t missed a beat in November either. Domi with a lightning strike shot as the Habs broke a zero-for-16 run on the power play. Another two-point game for Domi. He now has eight goals and seven assists for 15 points in 14 games. That’s better than a point per game. Domi is on pace for an absolutely stunning breakout season in his career. If Domi continues to find close to this form for the entire season, his breakout would happen in season four at the age of 23 when it often does for a pro. It’s beginning to look like a theft by Marc Bergevin and that has nothing to say about Alex Galchenyuk. It is simply a point about Domi because not only is he gaining points at a remarkable pace, but he is also playing the centre position like he has his entire life.
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Strong recovery game from Noah Juulsen after struggling a couple contests recently. Juulsen with a terrific outlet pass to free Domi who then freed Drouin. He then in the third period worked hard to get into the shooting lane allowing the deflection by Artturi Lehkonen. Juulsen was also strong defensively on a night when others were quite challenged overall.
As much as the Joel Armia on the power play completely confuses me, a bouquet has to be given to the coaching staff for how much they are trusting Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who got another point in this one. Claude Julien and his staff has Kotkaniemi out in the last minute of a tie game against Matt Barzal. This is a remarkable show of confidence for an 18-year-old from a coach who has not often rolled the dice trying to help a young man get some real lessons on the fly. Being a coach is a thankless job; you don’t often get complimented but you sure do get insulted a lot. Credit to Julien for pulling a lot of the right levers this season with this Habs team.
Lehkonen finally managed to score but it is his penalty killing that must be mentioned. Lehkonen could become one of the best penalty killers in the NHL. He has an ability to cut off the angles on the forecheck that is second to none in hockey. When he was killing a penalty in the first period, Lehkonen was able to turn around two Islanders defencemen for 30 full seconds simply by angling and circling over and over again. They simply could not figure out a way to get beyond him. He understands the physics of it. It’s a remarkable thing to watch through the years.
Antti Niemi was reading the shooters so well in the shootout it was uncanny. The Isles have some very talented shooters and Niemi went five for five in the breakaway competition. He seemed to be ready for the shot before it was even taken. The style was so unorthodox before the Isles hit the blue line as he was standing completely upright almost looking disinterested in the proceedings, but when the shot was taken, he was right in front of it. Amazing shootout from Niemi and an amazing win.
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Armia hasn’t gotten a lot of praise this season, but when you are the only shooter in 10 shots to score to win the game breaking the Islanders five-game winning streak, you get praised. Armia was the only Habs participant to actually take a shot. It worked. The Habs are 8-4-2 in 14 games. The Habs are on pace for a 105-point season. Is that right? That can’t possibly be right. Yes. It’s right.
The key pairing that struggled was Jordie Benn and Jeff Petry. In the first period, Benn with a pinch at the blue line that was costly leading to a two-on-one where Petry tried to time his slide to stop the pass across the slot. The slide was reminiscent of a baseball comedy movie where the runner slides into second base and doesn’t actually make it to the bag stopping about 10 feet short where he is an easy tag out. Benn and Petry were also at fault on another of the three goals in the first period. Benn is backing off the blue line too easily now because he doesn’t want to be beat for speed. It’s natural, but it’s not working.
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The Habs power play was zero for its last 16 chances. Their early second period attempt had a lot of good, including some clear shot attempts and a full one minute and 45 seconds of possession in the Islanders zone. What it didn’t have though was the actual use of all of the five players. It seems hard to believe but in 105 straight seconds with the puck, Armia did not touch the puck a single time. Armia was in front of the net the entire time and it didn’t go off his stick, his skate, his butt or his head. They just don’t look for him and he can’t find a way to get implicated at all. This seems like a good time to remind you that Armia has not scored a power play goal in his entire NHL career, but there he is game after game on the first power play unit. You have to give the coaching staff credit for perseverance at least.
The situation in Laval is not good so far this season as the club is seventh of eight teams in the North Division of the American Hockey League. The Rocket record is only 4-7-1. The club struggles mightily to score goals. The Rocket are second worst in goals with 27 on the season. Only San Antonio has fewer with 26. Kenny Agostino is the leading scorer on the team with four goals and six assists. He is 46th in the league with that total. That’s positively sensational compared to the top plus-minus Laval Rocket player’s rank. Michael McCarron is plus 1, which makes him 293rd in the league. As they say though, it’s all about developing players and on that front, Jake Evans is making progress each game becoming more and more comfortable at the AHL level.
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While it is quite disappointing so far in Laval, in the prospect ranks there are many players looking strong and three who are definitely standing out. The top prospect in the organization Nick Suzuki is certainly not disappointing. Suzuki scored a gorgeous shorthanded goal on Sunday night for Owen Sound with a series of dekes that left the goaltender on the wrong half of the net. Suzuki is once again having no trouble scoring for a third straight season in the OHL. This year he has played 16 games with 13 goals and 12 assists. He is also an impressive plus-9 for the attack.
The other stand-out is Ryan Poehling, another first-round draft choice from 2017. He continues to up his point totals from year to year at the college level for powerhouse St. Cloud State in rural Minnesota. In his first season, he had 13 points in 35 games. In his second season, 31 points in 34 games. It’s early in 2018-19, but Poehling is now a point-per-game player, and in college this is not an easy feat like it is in the Canadian juniors. Poehling has eight points in eight games on three goals and five assists. One can easily see Suzuki patrolling the right wing, and Poehling in the centre position, with a complete 200-foot game, for years to come.
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So while Laval is disappointing, if you can add two high quality hockey players to your roster each year, you’re on a path to greatness. Last season, the Habs added Victor Mete and Juulsen. This year, they added Kotkaniemi to the youth brigade. Next season, they could potentially add Suzuki, Poehling and Josh Brook. The final of the big three prospects shining right now, Brook is absolutely dominating on the right side of the defence in Moose Jaw. Another product of the 2017 draft, Brook has offensive numbers that would make you think he is a forward. Brook has played 12 games and has five goals and 10 assists. Brook is going to make it difficult either next year or the year after to figure out who is going to be long term on the Habs blue line on the right side with Shea Weber, Petry, and Juulsen already in secured positions. There will come a day when Brook won’t be denied. In fact, Tim Hunter, his head coach in Moose Jaw, had huge praise for Brook saying he was one of the best defensemen in the country right now. Brook is the captain for Canada at the Canada-Russia Junior hockey series that started late Monday night.