An extremely busy week for the Montreal Canadiens with four games in six nights. It started with the Washington Capitals’ visit. The Habs have one win already this season over the Stanley Cup champion Capitals. Montreal feeling good after winning two of three on their West Coast swing, but a second win in succession against the champs while avoiding the jet-lag return from the west would be a tall order.
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- There are times these days when you can see the physical challenges of the NHL for an 18-year-old paperweight against grown men. There are other times when you see the mental capacity of Jesperi Kotkaniemi and you simply marvel. He knows where the puck is going to be next as well as any player in the game. He simply feels the movement of the play like some sort of Neo in The Matrix. Here’s the great part for the Habs in all of this: He will always have that vision and hockey sense, and soon he won’t be an NHL paperweight. When Kotkaniemi doesn’t lose the physical battles so he can carry the puck longer and have more patience with the puck, a dimension will be added to his game that will make him a significantly better player than he already is. Kotkaniemi put two more points up for 12 points in 21 games. He is on pace for a 47-point season as an 18-year-old. This is an incredibly good number. At this pace, he would be the 27th highest scorer at 18 in NHL history. The Habs’ best is Mario Tremblay at 39 points at 18 years of age, and that was in a high scoring era. The Habs have a gem here. This kid is going to be something special.
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- Mike Reilly with some of the best decoy work you’re ever going to see on the Habs’ opening goal. Reilly was expected to just shoot it from the point but instead dummied it beautifully to move around the shot blocker. He then dummied the pass to the slot two times freezing more Capitals checkers. He then dummied the goalie who was thinking now he will pass, but Reilly banked it in when Pheonix Copley left his post. It was, in fact, quite a brilliant hockey mind at work through the entire sequence.
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- Credit to the Habs coaching staff for starting a Habs power play with Kotkaniemi on the ice. And wow, look what happened to that horrible power play! They scored a goal. And Kotkaniemi got an assist on the goal with a heady play to get it in front of the net into the danger zone. He then fished it out of the pile eventually leading to Jeff Petry scoring. The fans have been calling for the Habs to use this creative kid with amazing vision for about a month. Fans are right. He needs to be out there on the first unit. It only makes sense because the one thing he cannot do right now is win puck battles, so put him out there the one time that one does not have to win puck battles.
- Max Domi moved to 25 points on the season which vaulted him once again into the top 10 in league scoring. Domi has now registered a point in 10 consecutive games. It wasn’t the assist that stood out, but how much Domi is a gamer. He was in a fight with Dmitry Orlov and Domi actually got knocked down. He got right back up and landed the best blow of the fight. Teammates love that. Teammates respect that. In the heart of many fans and hockey critics alike, you have the desire to end this part of the game, but if it is going to be a part of it, then you must recognize how much Domi is loved by his mates for that type of courage. The 25 points are also admired, of course. In the long run, you obviously don’t want your No. 1 centre to be fighting much, but you also don’t want him turtling. Fine line, and Domi has been right at the sweet spot so far.
- A look at the scoreboard would seem to indicate that Carey Price had a rough night, but with the quality of shot that he faced, he could have easily let in eight to 10 goals, if he weren’t at the top of his game. Price may not get to a good save percentage this season, and earlier that was on him, but in the end, it may be an impossible task with this defensive corps. It’s high danger shots all night and every night. Price was flashing the glove beautifully as the Capitals were sniping from 15 feet on the regular. Price has found his game again. He has put in three straight excellent starts, but he will need some help. No goalie can face this type of quality without breaking down eventually. The save in the third period with one second left in the game against Alex Ovechkin was a moment you will see over and over again for years. The save is magical with the blocker. The sportsmanship and appreciation of Ovechkin clapping right in front of Price is what will make this one special. Ovechkin knows that he would have beaten anyone else, but Price. What a moment with one of the greatest scorers ever acknowledging Price like that. Beautiful. Those are the moments that make us all love sports. The greatest in the world going toe to toe.
- David Schlemko has received considerable praise for his play so far this season, but not in this column. Schlemko on the first goal was doing nothing. He was completely out of position fishing for the puck as he whiffed at it on the way by him. There were three Capitals forwards standing in front of the net and Schlemko didn’t have any of them.
- On the second Caps’ goal, the much-maligned defence was doing its 2017-2018 impression again. Jordie Benn admired a quality pass go right past him and he too was covering no one. The Habs were the fourth worst team in the NHL last season. When the defencemen who were a part of that travesty last year are on the ice, it looks like the same travesty. Benn, Schlemko, and Karl Alzner cannot cut it in today’s NHL. They cannot keep up. The General Manager Marc Bergevin admitted in the off-season that the game has changed and it is now a speed game. So why if he knows that, does he not put two and two together and get defencemen who can play the speed game? This old guard can’t play the new way. One has to presume that Bergevin is on that job right now, but it takes time. The numbers speak loud volumes: the Habs can score but the Habs can’t defend. These players cannot defend. Simple.
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- The time must come soon for the coaching staff to abandon Phillip Danault as the second line centre. It is too long now that Danault gets a free pass for what he brings. He will be an excellent shutdown centre in years to come when the Habs have a match-up centre that they want to key on, but as a centre to get great line-mates, Danault is playing out of his comfort zone. Danault is a 40-point player. That’s his ceiling. He has a ceiling of about 10 goals and that’s just not good enough to get second-line minutes. The day must come, perhaps as early as this season, for Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar to get Kotkaniemi to play with them. Danault has one goal this season. One. We have played a quarter of the year, and they’re getting one goal from their second-line centre. There are excited fans and critics alike who think the Habs can do big things this year, but when Danault has one goal and Kotkaniemi is 18 years of age and has three goals, it does not feel like those are the numbers of excellence and a playoff spot. This is not to ignore that Danault has 11 assists, nor is it to ignore that he does great things against some great centres as a checker, it is simply to say that the make-up of a great NHL team is that the secon- line centre has better than a four-goal season.
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- Nicolas Deslauriers with some horrific defending on the Capitals’ third goal. First of all, he loses the puck, so in his desire to repair his mistake, he goes hunting to retrieve it, but instead leaves his man all alone. All five Habs were on one side of the sheet, and Deslauriers was the biggest culprit for being on the wrong side of it. Deslauriers has been a mess this season. He has one goal in 15 games. He finishes his check a lot which someone noted was a great thing, but it also means he doesn’t have the puck and finishing the check also means you’re arriving after the opposition player has already gotten rid of it. None of that is actually effective hockey. The Habs have some injury problems so this is all they have at the moment, but when Paul Byron is healthy again, and Nikita Scherbak comes back healthy from Laval, Deslauriers has to be recognized as an error, and not gifted far more ice time than he deserves.
- When the Habs learned that Shea Weber needed knee surgery and would not be back until December, most thought that if they could just hang on and stay in the race until his return, they had a chance to make a good season of it. The script is perfect so far as Weber gets closer to returning while the Habs are winning more than most thought possible. Weber will not play this week for the club, according to Head Coach Claude Julien but didn’t rule out the following week. That would put Weber two or three weeks ahead of schedule for this return. He has skated with the club in practice but not full contact. The club could use his 30 minutes for sure. The weakness of the club this season by far is at defence.
- Also not returning this week according to the head coach is Paul Byron who continues to nurse his lower body injury. The Habs lead the NHL in 5-on-5 goals but they still miss Byron who could certainly help an anemic fourth line. There is no exact timeline given by the Habs; instead, they simply say he is week-to-week.
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- On the farm, only one player is writing a story that makes you believe an NHL career could be in the offing and that’s Jake Evans. The 7th-round draft choice out of Notre Dame continues to show an intelligence that makes you believe he may be able to centre a fourth line at the NHL level. Evans got off to a poor start trying to learn how to up his game to the next level, but in his last 10 games, he has 11 points. Overall, Evans has played 18 games and has six goals and seven assists for 13 points. He has become the first line centre on the Rocket in a short time. He’s the great hope so far this season in Laval.
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- At the college level, the Saint Cloud State Huskies are the No. 1 school in the country again after the latest rankings came out Monday. The Huskies have played 12 games this season, and their top centre Ryan Poehling is having his best season of three in rural Minnesota scoring at more than a point-per-game pace. Poehling, the former first rounder by the Habs, has three goals and 10 assists for 13 points. The season before Poehling had 31 points in 36 points. If he can keep this progression up, it bodes well for him to eventually find the centre position on the Canadiens. The best attribute of Poehling’s game is how intelligent he is at both ends of the ice. This seems to be a prerequisite for Trevor Timmins. Examine the hopes for the future drafted by Timmins and they exhibit that characteristic. Poehling is cerebral. Kotkaniemi is cerebral. Going through the organization Phillip Danault also plays an intelligent 200-foot game. They had no confidence that Alex Galchenyuk could bring that two-way game and they shipped him out for Max Domi who is putting up numbers at centre seen for a very long time in Montreal. So not only do you have a future of four strong centres, but a future of four intelligent centres who won’t hurt you at the defensive end of the ice.
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- Noah Juulsen took a shot to the helmet midway through the first period and luckily he was OK. He went back out there and got hit in the head a second time. This time, he took a hard shot in the face, and had to leave the game… he went to the hospital for X-rays on his cheekbone.
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