Max Domi called this the most important week of the season, but it needed a win over the Boston Bruins at the Bell Centre to be salvaged. The Habs entered the game with three straight losses for the first time this season, but with two games going to overtime, they had a chance to earn four of a possible eight points if they could beat the Bruins.
- Though the first goal against Montreal was the direct fault of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the rookie also showed what makes him the second best offensive centre on the Habs. It’s time to give him some linemates who can finish his passes. Artturi Lehkonen is struggling to finish some sweet plays so let’s see if Brendan Gallagher or Tomas Tatar can finish them. Both have an ability to score at a higher level than Lehkonen. Phillip Danault has been partnered with Gallagher and Tatar all season, and while he is a solid defensive centre, his ceiling for points is 40. Danault has one goal this season on the second line playing with two of the three top offensive players on the Habs; Kotkaniemi should be in the second-line centre role soon. Claude Julien flirted with the idea one game, but he didn’t stick with it. If Danault had 55 points to 60 in his stick, then it might make some sense to put him in the second-line centre role, but you can’t love a defensive player in an offensive role, just like you can’t love an offensive player in a defensive role. Why do coaches always feel so comfortable with one but not the other? It’s a mystery. It’s just like the fact that you wouldn’t put Joel Armia on the power play, now would you? Hold it. Kotkaniemi probably isn’t going to be the second-line centre anytime soon, but know this: a team with a second-line centre with four goals on the season isn’t making the playoffs. That’s not the blueprint for success in hockey.
- Tatar made a gorgeous shot upstairs to tie the contest at two. Tatar is only 27 years of age. It’s remarkable to note that not only did the Habs gain two assets in a three-for-one trade, but they also gained two years of age in the Tatar vs. Max Pacioretty part of the deal. Tatar continues to be the equal of Pacioretty, though the former captain is now finally starting to roll in Las Vegas. Tatar now has 10 goals on the season for the Habs. He’s also third in team scoring. He’s a tremendous addition to the team.
- Jonathan Drouin, with one streak of brilliance, changed the tenor of the game. The Habs were sleeping their way through the evening, down by two goals in the third period, but then Drouin got a head of steam and skated through the Bruins’ defence in an absolutely gorgeous sequence that only the uber-talented can pull off. Drouin got credit for the goal, his ninth of the season. He is now on pace for 68 points on the season — his career best is 53. Drouin certainly looked to be the weaker player in the trade for Mikhail Sergachev last season, but this year, it’s Drouin who is having the better season. He gets a Wilde Horse for making the game come alive, but the four-minute high-sticking minor late in the game ended up being costly.
- The script looks very similar these days for the Habs: they allow too many goals in pretty much every game. Before the Bruins visit, the Habs allowed a big 13 goals in their last three games. Add three more, and we see exactly what is wrong with the club. The coaches try different bodies every game in hopes of finding some elixir. Brett Kulak had a strong first game on Friday, but on Saturday he lost his man for an important second goal. David Schlemko was also on the ice for that tally; he’s on the ice for a lot of tallies. Jordie Benn has been trying his best, but his gap control is dreadful, as he skates back into his own goalie time and time again. Karl Alzner can’t beat his man for speed so while his brain knows what he needs to do, his body can’t follow. All of these defenders have something in common: they are, at best, third-pair defenders. All are being asked to be much more than that, and therein lies the problem, of course. This issue is not going to change this season. You can rejig the partnerships, rejig the ice times, rejig the matchups, but it all adds up to the same thing — they’re not good enough. There are three major ways to change your lineup in the NHL: the entry draft, trades and free agency. The entry draft is the best option, but that requires losses if you’re going to get the best left-handed young defenders coming up. The good news for the Habs is the best defenders in this draft are left-handed. Montreal would be best served to find a way to draft either Philip Broberg or Bowen Byram. Those two stand out from the pack in the 2019 draft at the moment. The second-best option is through trading, and perhaps the Habs can trade one of their top four on the right side for someone just as talented on the left side. The final option is through free agency, but that’s a tough sell to get someone to choose Montreal as their top option, though the Habs do have the money available. The overall point is that improving this defence is not a short-term solution; this is going to take some time. The Habs have the offence and the goaltending, but they are a middle-of-the-road team overall without two great defenders added on the left side. For the rest of this season, they’ll keep making adjustments, but this sports thing is very simple — adjustments don’t change the talent. Though there is a romanticism about attitude, teamwork, the home crowd, the crest and many other intangibles, nine times out of 10 winning is simply about talent. They’re going to have to go get some.
WATCH: A mixed bag of games
- If someone told you before the season began that when Shea Weber returned to the lineup the Habs would be in the playoffs, you would have jumped for joy as a Habs fan. No doubt about it, there were very few who believed what the Habs have done in the first quarter of the season was at all possible. However, the cracks have been showing recently. At the same time, the man with the caulking is arriving. The captain of the Montreal Canadiens will make his return on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre against the Carolina Hurricanes. The biggest question is who will be his partner on the left side. Smart money is it will be Mike Reilly: he plays the right kind of style for a stay-at-home defender like Weber, who can cover mistakes made by a defenceman who likes to join the rush. When Reilly was playing strong hockey at the start of the season, it was an easy guess that he would join Weber, but recently Reilly has struggled so this is not a sure thing. The coaching staff seems to be favouring Schlemko these days for some unknown reason; we will know soon. It’s not a known, but one thing everyone does know is that Weber can’t return soon enough to a core of blue liners who have struggled mightily in recent times.