The Montreal Canadiens took on the Vegas Golden Knights Saturday night in what was much more than just another game for Max Pacioretty.
The former captain of the Habs is not off to a strong start so far this season, with only two goals and no assists. He would have loved a big night against his former team. But Montreal also needed a result, having lost two in a row for the first time this season.
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Jesperi Kotkaniemi is putting together some strong numbers to start this season as he continues to shock the hockey world. Kotkaniemi, who has three goals and six assists for nine points in 17 games this season, continues to make sublime passes and find himself in the dirty areas to score goals, when it’s not easy to be there for the punishment that has to be endured.
Kotkaniemi is at a half a point per game in the first quarter of his NHL career as an 18-year-old. This is a remarkable achievement. There are very few that have done this in the NHL at such a tender age in the history of the game, so let’s see where this goes for the next 60 or so.
It could be that he finds the going tough with his slender frame and wears down over time. It also could be that his magical vision and passing skills will get even better and he will be more comfortable over time. Whichever way the rest of this season goes in that battle between what his body is probably not ready to do and what his brain clearly already can do, know this: The Habs have hit a home run with this draft pick.
Andrew Shaw strong again on a line with Jonathan Drouin and Max Domi. He’s the perfect mate for these two players: he does the dirty work, he goes into the corner, he bangs some bodies. He’s responsible, defensively, allowing both players to concentrate on what they do best.
Shaw didn’t seem to be finding a role on the team only last week. You wondered what his future looked like. He’s rejuvenated. Two more goals on the night and four on the season. Three goals in only two games since being put with Domi and Drouin.
Max Domi, with another two helpers, moved to 21 points on the season. The Habs seem to have a point-per-game player on their roster — imagine that. Domi moves into the top ten in league scoring. This was not one of his best games, either, but whether he is on the puck all night or it doesn’t fall exactly for him, he is still contributing on the scoreboard. A night when it doesn’t seem to be falling exactly for him and he gets two points.
A remarkable thing is happening for the Habs in the middle of the sheet for the first time in a decade. They have a middle that can win the game. And while the points are outstanding, the work ethic defensively is just as vital. He has an engine that is second to none; he drew a vital penalty, nursing a one-goal lead, with three minutes remaining.
Those are hard minutes to hold on, and it sure helps when you are on the power play for two of the three.
Charles Hudon is so close to figuring it out at the NHL level. He needs to make sure that he stops taking bad penalties and gets better defensively, then the coast is clear for him to have a very bright career. Hudon has sweet moves, and when he is given an opportunity to play with some players who aren’t fourth line scrubs who can’t think the game like he can, he makes a lot of great hockey plays.
His moment with Kotkaniemi was outstanding as they read each other so well. Kotkaniemi held and waited for the lane to open and Hudon filled the lane, saw the poke check, and made Marc-Andre Fleury look silly.
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There are so many occasions where Karl Alzner is keeping his opponent to the outside so safely, the shift never seems to end.
Alzner will skate miles watching the opponent cycle in front of him without any chance, it seems, to actually break up the play. It’s exasperating to watch. There are times when it leads to so much zone time that others get tired and it actually through two stages of separation, leading to goals against. Take the first period against the Golden Knights. It appeared Alzner was doing an acceptable job. There isn’t a terrific Vegas chance on goal, but Mike Reilly is in his own zone for so long that he takes a penalty.
The penalty then leads to a goal and Vegas leads 1-0. So you may point your target directly on Reilly, but the real start of the issue was the 30 seconds around Alzner that did not lead to the Habs clearing the puck.
Overall, let’s take a look at what is happening to the Habs. When they were at their best, they were a fast moving team who got the puck up ice quickly and took advantage of the speed of its forwards. When they are at their worst, they can’t move the puck up ice and they can’t get it into the opposition zone cleanly, either.
When you assess the best characteristic of the Habs, it’s the wingers speed. A winger with speed who can’t get the puck from his defenceman in full flight, however, cannot do what he does best.
Let’s then look at the personnel when the Habs were at their best and let’s look at their personnel now. On defence, you see Karl Alzner, Jordie Benn, and David Schlemko. Well, doesn’t that look a lot like last year’s defence when the Habs were the fourth worst team in the entire NHL? These players can’t think the game fast enough. Getting the puck and automatically going D-to-D is not taking advantage of speedy wingers; getting the puck and automatically holding it for five seconds while you try to find an option is not taking advantage of speedy wingers.
Noah Juulsen thinks the game quickly. He is missed. Xavier Ouellet has the odd difficulty defensively, for sure, but he thinks the game more quickly than the three who are charged with that task. The Habs have managed extremely well this season, considering the talent on the blue line, but they won’t take the next step until they get Shea Weber back, find a left side first pair D, find two other defenders who can move the puck at a much faster pace to take advantage of the forwards ability to move the puck, and find their feet, too.
Where would the Habs be with some decent goaltending?
This was supposed to be their strength, but it is their biggest weakness. Carey Price has an 892 save percentage for 35th in the league. Antti Niemi entered the Golden Knights game with an 893 save percentage and he had a tough one again, allowing four goals.
The Habs have allowed 26 goals in their last six games — that is simply abysmal. The Habs are actually getting some of the worst goaltending in the league, yet they sit with an impressive record — a record very few saw possible this season. Imagine if they find someone to stop the puck. The Habs sit 26th in the league in save percentage. The Habs might just be a very good hockey team with some goaltending and some upgrades on defence. This team is not that far from great things.
The expectation is for to Price improve. Weber will soon return. In the future, add Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki, who are both having outstanding prospect seasons, and two key pieces on defence, and look out! The challenge for Bergevin is to somehow shore up this blue line without weakening the team elsewhere. If he can, add a first pair, left-side defender and at least one other better puck mover on the blue line, then they will be in the mix with the top three in the Atlantic.
Who considered that even a possibility that wouldn’t be laughed at uproariously last April?
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It continues to be a very difficult start for Nikita Scherbak, who sat out for almost a dozen games — so long, in fact, that he was sent to Laval to get his game shape back.
He wasn’t able to strike often in the minors, scoring only the one time but suffering an injury in the contest. Scherbak is now out with a lower body injury. On the positive front is the play of Jake Evans, who struggled in the pre-season due to a concussion that looked extremely dangerous. He got his health and his game back as he looks to be quickly becoming the best prospect now playing in Laval. Evans had only two points in his first eight games, but since then he has seven points in his last six games. Evans could be an NHLer. He is finding his way quickly in the world’s second best hockey league.
More stellar play from Ryan Poehling at Saint Cloud State in rural Minnesota. The former first-round draft choice of the Habs, Poehling in his third college season is looking like a strong, 200-pound player in the making. He is putting up game numbers for one of the best schools in the country. Poehling had two assists as Saint Cloud, beating Denver 4-3 in a battle of two of the top five teams in the U.S.A.
Outstanding reception for Max Pacioretty at the Bell Centre. The Habs put together a montage of his best moments for the Habs and the fans received it beautifully. It was a rousing standing ovation before the game, with not a boo heard. This was a complete reversal of the reception that Alex Radulov received who was booed every single time he touched the puck. Well done by the fans on this one, as Pacioretty never did anything wrong, but fell prey to the business of hockey. He wanted to be a Habs captain for his career, but Bergevin made a business decision.
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It’s hard to argue with that decision. The club is better with Tomas Tatar performing strongly right now and also will be better in years to come with Nick Suzuki expected to become an NHL sniper. You can’t be sentimental about building a winner. You must make the best hockey decision every single time.
There was also a heartfelt standing ovation for Tomas Plekanec, who retired after 1,001 games in the NHL. He was in a luxury box with Bergevin, and throughout the long ovation, the humble Plekanec could not muster a wave until coaxed by the GM to give a wave.
He did, which set up a longer ovation as the players waited for Plekanec to get his due before facing off.
Plekanec was a professional through and through as an NHLer. He cared deeply and gave all he had. His coaches felt as if he was always ready to sacrifice statistics for the greater good. He always understood it is a team sport. He is likely, after a break to rest his weary back, going to play at Kladno in the Czech League at some point to conclude his hockey career.