The Buffalo Sabres are the hottest team in hockey while the Montreal Canadiens are struggling.
The Sabres were on the hunt for their eighth straight win and their third straight win already this season against the Habs. The Habs were hoping to avoid their first three-game losing skid of the season.
Head coach Claude Julien is moving players in and out of the lineup, looking to kick start something. Charles Hudon, Mike Reilly and Xavier Ouellet were left out while Matthew Peca, Brett Kulak and Karl Alzner were brought in. For Kulak, it was his first game as a Hab.
It took a quarter of a season for the organization to be frustrated enough with the defence to give Kulak a chance. Kulak has been far and away the best defender in Laval this season. What were they waiting for? Kulak, if he can keep up a semblance of this game, is definitely a better option than some of the left side they use now. Kulak is a better skater, so he is able to keep his gap tighter and higher than Jordie Benn or David Schlemko. Benn backs into his own goalie on rushes that aren’t even dangerous, like a two-on-two. Kulak looked very confident in Buffalo. He challenged the attackers. He made smart decisions. He cleared the puck well. The challenge is to maintain that level. Remember that Benn can find that level at times too, but with fatigue or harder match-ups, he eventually falters. For now though, Kulak has to be given a long look here. He definitely stabilized the left side in this one. In fact, as the game went on, you could surely argue that he put in the best defensive performance from the left side this entire season.
WATCH BELOW: Brian Wilde discusses Habs mixed bag of games
It took a while for Brendan Gallagher to get back to scoring, but with 11 goals this season, he is on his way to another excellent season. He’s on pace for 40. He all but certainly won’t hit that number, but he will hit a significant number yet again. Gallagher has been nursing an unannounced wrist injury, but he’s fighting through it, because that is what Gallagher does. He works his way through everything. He scored a first goal but it was ruled off because he kicked it in. He kicked it in because his stick was being held, but he did what Gallagher does: he persisted. It’s impossible to not love this player.
The fourth line has been singled out for some horrible play this season, and Nicolas Deslauriers has been a complete waste of a roster spot all year, but in this one, Deslauriers, Michael Chaput and Kenny Agostino were strong. They had a lot of offensive zone pressure and didn’t cost the team at all. Very rarely did they have to absorb any pressure. Hudon not getting a spot in the lineup seemed to be a harsh choice beforehand, but during the game when the fourth liners brought what they did, it didn’t seem harsh anymore.
READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Habs win in Vancouver
The line of Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin and Andrew Shaw were finally held off the board, but they had some outstanding moments again. Shaw is the perfect compliment for that line. Shaw has six goals in his last eight games since being added to that line. Drouin and Domi have some terrific chemistry together. Last year, Drouin and Max Pacioretty even practiced together in August trying to find some chemistry but it was oil and water, however Drouin and Domi find each other without eyes. It’s fun to watch — there is a lot of good future in that partnership. Terrific move from general manager Marc Bergevin in this instance.
Bergevin has to admit his errors at this point. It’s not right to keep using these slow defenders because he doesn’t want to swallow his pride. Schlemko got beaten for speed by everyone. It cost him a couple minors. He got so turned inside out by Jack Eichel that it was embarrassing. Alzner has what seems like forever left on his contract, so what to do there? Take a roster spot when you struggle that badly for the next three seasons? Every GM makes mistakes. It’s how you live with them that decides a lot too. At least when Victor Mete struggles, you know there is still upside left in the equation. Alzner, Benn and Schlemko are not ever going to be better and they’re not good enough. Roll the dice with Reilly — he can still find his better self. Roll the dice with Mete — he will most certainly find his better self as a 20-year-old. It just doesn’t make sense to have the worst players on your team past their prime already. Bergevin probably thinks the embarrassment is having to eat the contract, but the true embarrassment is constantly getting reminded about the contract you gave when you have to watch the player get turnstiled night after night.
WATCH: Call of the Wilde — The Price is wrong
The Habs were nursing a 2-1 lead with under two minutes left in the game, then the Sabres hit the blue line with no danger in sight. The play for the defender was so obvious. You have to challenge the forward so he doesn’t win 20 feet easily before he has to make a play, but Benn’s gap control was horrible as usual. He backed in and backed in. The result was an easy play on goal that led to a rebound and it was 2-2. It was simply terrible defence. You can’t give up 20 feet on a nothing play. You have to pressure the attacker who isn’t even dangerous as he isn’t carrying any speed on the play. Nothing is going to come of it. At least sometimes when Benn’s gap is terrible you can somewhat forgive him because the forward is carrying speed, but to give up all of that distance on an innocent play is the kind of moment that costs hockey games.
Help is on the way on the blue line thankfully for Habs fans. In the short term, Shea Weber will return on Tuesday night for his first game of the season and his first game in almost a full year. Weber is recovering from knee surgery and is ahead of schedule for his return by two weeks.
Help is on the way on the blue line in the long term as well. Josh Brook is one of the best defenceman in all of junior hockey. In 16 games, Brook has six goals and 17 assists in Moose Jaw for a remarkable 23 points. The second-round draft choice is the best defender the Habs have in their organization that is not in the NHL right now and his arrival is desperately needed. It is likely that he will start in the American Hockey League in his first pro season, much like Juulsen. Expect Brook’s path to the NHL to be much like Juulsen’s too, with only a short stay in Laval.
WATCH: Global’s hockey analyst Brian Wilde breaks down the key plays from the Habs
This was a low-event game which Julien likes a lot more than high-event games. The Habs have been most entertaining this season allowing many scoring chances while getting a lot of them as well. In this one, there were barely any chances for either team, and you know that Julien will steer the ship that way. That is his instinct. It’s easy to see already based on the form of this game that Domi will leave the top 10 scoring race and Drouin won’t be on pace anymore to blow apart his previous best season. We shall see, but it’s easy to envision it already if you know the instincts of the bosses. Julien will argue that he needs to tighten it up because you can’t allow that many chances and that many goals. He’s right, but it can also be argued that the Habs had a playoff spot and a top 10 ranking when the change happened. Let’s see what the final 60 games look like compared to the first 22.