Back-to-back nights for the Montreal Canadiens. The statistics certainly are not good around the league for a team having to go two nights in a row.
However, if you have to play on consecutive nights, it sure can’t get better than going from Brooklyn to Manhattan with the Habs taking on the New York Rangers on Tuesday night at Madison Square Garden.
Montreal ended the Islanders’ five-game winning streak. Up next, the three-game winning streak of the Rangers.
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Max Pacioretty is coming to Montreal on Saturday night for the first time since he was traded. So far it has not been an easy road for Pacioretty in Las Vegas. He’s been injured it is true, but he does not have good numbers on the season either. Pacioretty has just two goals on the season. He has zero assists and he is minus four. Compare that to the roster player that he was traded for Tomas Tatar. He scored another two goals for five goals on the season. Tatar is a perennial 20-goal scorer and it appears that he is on his way to that number again. Tatar has five points in the last five games. Pacioretty is a perennial 35-goal scorer but he had only 17 last year. This year it’s not expected to be a strong number either, with a projection of about 15 and 20 goals. Two big trades in the off season for GM Marc Bergevin and both have been wildly successful.
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His other trade is even more successful than the Pacioretty one so far. Nine goals in 15 games for Max Domi this season. He has equaled his entire goal total for last season. His power play marker was absolute magic. He was so cool with the move to the back hand and then he roofed it like Mario Lemieux. Domi is having the best 15-game stretch of his entire career. Clearly, the player is meant for the centre position and the irony is that the Habs organization has taken so much flak for not playing Galchenyuk at centre. How much flak should the Coyotes organization take for not playing Domi at centre? Domi is top 30 in the league in scoring as well. Now obviously he can’t continue at this pace, but even a drop off of 30 per cent from here is still a remarkable win for the Habs strengthening their team down the middle, and in the room.
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There are better players available for the Habs to try on the fourth line. Nikita Scherbak is a better player than anyone on that fourth line. Paul Byron when he is healthy is obviously a better player. Tomas Plekanec when he is healthy is a better player. In the first period, the fourth line is caught in a pair of two-on-one situations. Nicolas Deslauriers is trying so hard to finish his check but he can never catch up to it. Matthew Peca is trying his best but he is a career minor leaguer for a reason. Andrew Shaw may have already seen his best days too. The Habs could have a strong or at least competitive fourth line but night after night, it’s these three and they are a hot mess.
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It’s Jonathan Drouin who is to blame principally for the Rangers first goal though. He turned the puck over in the neutral zone, briefly got it back, only to turn it over again. It led to a two-on-one where the Habs were a little unfortunate to get scored on as Jordie Benn actually made a good play to break it up, but the luck of the bounce favoured the Rangers who got a second chance at it and converted. All the while, Drouin was never able to again implicate himself in a defensive role. Word from analyst Mike Johnson — who was right there at the bench — is that Petry screamed at Drouin for the mistake. Second period and Drouin had a simply dreadful shift, giving away the puck twice in his own zone when he had clear possession. It was his worst shift of the season. The decision making was just too dangerous, especially in a 3-2 game. Third period and Drouin was around the puck and doing nothing on the 4-3 goal and the 5-3 goal. He didn’t take his man either time. He wasn’t the last man back, but he was close and he was doing nothing.
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Once again the power play has to be singled out for ineptitude in the manpower usage. Not only did Joel Armia get his usual first power play unit assignment (and yes, it’s always a good idea to remind you he has never scored a power play goal in his entire career) but you can add the offensive powerhouse Shaw to the unusual power play manpower selections. People often suggest that they need a right-handed shot, but what they need is someone with vision, play making and finish. They need someone who can handle the puck. Good power play players are those who are able to create quickly and have a low-panic threshold when the opponent is trying to take away time and space. There are probably six forwards that they could use that would be better than Armia or Shaw.
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Jeff Petry is on the ice too much right now. He’s doing his best with all of the work, but he is not a first-pair defender and as a result he is out of his comfort zone. One of the big reasons that a team has trouble is that players are out of their element. If you make Benn be a first-pair defender, he’s going to have trouble because Benn can only handle third-pair minutes and third-pair opposition in talent. Petry is a second-pair defender so when you make him play almost 30 minutes he can’t handle it and his game will degrade. If he played against second-pair opposition talent level and had second-pair minutes, you wouldn’t notice his game deteriorate. Players have to be comfortable, and they’ll give you their best. Petry looks worn down and the result is on the tying goal he had two men in front of him and he didn’t have the energy to take care of either of them.
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The game winner for the Rangers was due to Noah Juulsen being flat footed with a forward coming at him full speed. He was beaten to the outside and that was the game. Juulsen is having a strong rookie season. He hits with great skill and he will have a superb career, but he still gets caught for speed at times on the rush. He will learn — but for this one, it was costly.
The Habs coaching staff seems to be managing more of a meritocracy this year than it has in the last decade. For so many seasons there has been frustration that a player who had the right salary and long term played instead of the better player. One only has to look at Scott Gomez on a $7.3-million contract when he kept getting trotted out game after game even though he couldn’t score a single goal for practically a season.
This year, head coach Claude Julien is not getting caught up in any big money contract while he decides who deserves to play and who does not. Karl Alzner is a highly paid extra for the Habs this season. He has played only twice. In the first game, Alzner was strong and he merited a second game when he was weak, but he was quickly relegated to the sidelines again. Charles Hudon has been strong this season, but one game he took bad penalties and cost the Habs dearly. He was benched the next contest. Hudon responded with his best game of the season. The entire organization is showing that they can not allow the Ales Hemskys and Mark Streits to get long looks, costing victories early in the season. The truth is that a season can be lost in October and the Habs are playing it smartly this year. They are making sure that they are taking advantage of other teams adjusting their lineups, giving long looks to players who probably don’t have the skills to be in the NHL, while they themselves are icing their strongest lineup every time they play. Well done all around.
Armia was injured in a knee-on-knee collision in the second period and did not return for the third period. It did not look to be a significant injury as Armia was able to skate around and test it before finally deciding to retire for the night.
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