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Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens win 4-3 in overtime over Golden Knights

Saturday night was game three for the Montreal Canadiens’ holiday season road trip of six game.

The goal has to simply be a .500 record when the trip is done. If the Habs can attain three wins and lose three times, that’s a strong result considering the opposition and the travel involved. So far, the Habs have a win in Arizona and a loss in Colorado. Still to come are games against Vegas, Florida, Tampa Bay and Dallas.

The challenge on Saturday was a difficult one, as the Golden Knights have only three regulation losses this season in Nevada. They are definitely a home team at 10-3-1 as they are not even .500 on the road.

With a 4-3 overtime win over the Golden Knights, though, the Habs proved that it was a challenge for which they’re ready.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Montreal Canadiens edge the Arizona Coyotes 2-1

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It was a short stay for Victor Mete in Laval, but did Joel Bouchard and the coaching staff ever help to get his game back in shape.

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He’s playing the best hockey of his short career. Since his return, Mete has been better than last year as well and certainly better than this season. Mete is making outstanding first passes. He is creating space for himself, with his speed making him difficult to forecheck on. He is joining the rush at times effectively, closing down forwards with that same speed.

The knock will be that he doesn’t win the physical battles, but as head coach Claude Julien said last season, “We don’t want him to get into physical battles. We want him to skate away from them with the puck.”

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This is difficult all the time, of course, but it’s working this time around for Mete. Could he be the answer this season as a partner for Shea Weber? The team desperately needs to find that answer, if they hope to make the playoffs. The answer to that question is whether Mete can handle the match-ups and increased ice time. It’s one thing to handle 14 minutes against the other team’s fourth line, but it’s quite another to play 21 minutes taking on the other team’s top line.

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In this one, Mete handled it beautifully. One could easily argue that for the second consecutive game he was the Habs best defenceman. He’s showing that he could be a 3-4 defender, which would be massive for the Habs long term.

Let’s see if he can keep this level up. That’s the real challenge.

Phillip Danault has scored this season at a pace of one goal per month, so when he actually scored three times in a single game, it was a rather huge day for the checking centre.

The line was hungry in this one, perhaps for Tomas Tatar, who was treated like he wasn’t much of a player in Las Vegas. Tatar arrived at the trading deadline, and he never got into the chemical equation of a club that was already firing well and perhaps didn’t want that interrupted. Tatar brought a third effort to this one, as he was clearly pumped to show the Golden Knights management that he is much more of a player than credited with. The general manager, George McPhee, basically gave Tatar away as acquiring Max Pacioretty, also costing Nick Suzuki and a second round draft choice.

It was as if Tatar was a throw-in. Tatar got an assist for the Habs on the tying goal, with Carey Price pulled for the extra attacker. The goal that was Danault’s was a remarkable second and third effort. He took three whacks at it and would not be denied, despite having a checker draped all over Danault.

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Impressive for the line, and in this one, the least impressive of the three was Brendan Gallagher — for a change.

 

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Montreal Canadiens, Golden Knights matchup more than just another game

Jesperi Kotkaniemi looked extremely comfortable in this one — a higher level of comfort than we have seen this season.

He was hunting the puck with greater confidence, and when he had it on his stick, he seemed much more ready to try to attempt a higher level of play. He also was strong around the crease and didn’t shy away from the dirty areas, or the defenders who wanted to put him on his back taking advantage of his minimal strength.

This felt like a bit of a breakout game in some ways, though the results surely didn’t show it in the form of offensive numbers. It just seemed as if this player looked more ready to try the harder plays. What a talent this young man is overall. It is stunning that he is 18 years of age, doing what he already can.

He’s a young 18, too, with a July birth date.

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The Habs have had a terrible time of it in three-on-three overtime this season, but give credit to the head coach for his personnel decisions in this one.

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The winning goal was scored by Paul Byron on a superb pass from Max Domi, who had received a feed from Victor Mete. Speed, speed and more speed. All three players bringing more speed than the Golden Knights could handle. That’s the way to do it. You simply can not even have Shea Weber on the ice for this scenario, as good as he is. You must be the best skater on the ice to win it with so much room to roam.

Credit as well to the head coach for playing the hot hand. It’s not a regular choice to put Danault on the ice with the goalie pulled, but there he was, in the crease and not going to be denied.

It wasn’t Shea Weber’s best game, certainly, but what’s remarkable is how his soaking up big minutes against top opposition has settled the entire defense considerably. Since Weber’s return, the Habs have put together five games that have a shot total close to a double of 44 to 22. This is shocking for a team that is basically scratching for a playoff spot. There aren’t a lot of pure finishers on the team, so they don’t tend to win easily, but with those possession numbers, this is overall a team that should win games.

In Weber’s 13 games, the Habs have absolutely dominated five games, shot-wise, doubling their opponent with the best of them a 47 to 18 mark over Ottawa. This one was a 47 to 26 margin in Vegas, where the Golden Knights are near the best home team in the league.

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The assignment went to Philip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher to handle the top line of Vegas and they had a difficult time at one end of the ice, even though they were able to create well in the offensive zone.

Defensively, though, Danault lost his man on the first goal, though one could also point to a Jeff Petry breakaway. It was the same issue on the second goal, as the middle of the slot was free and Danault lost his check completely.

Danault has been given the toughest assignments all year, and most of the time he has done a strong job. His line drives the play better than the other lines on the Habs, and that includes the scoring line of Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin and whoever they have as a mate on the day.

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In this one, however, they struggled trying to defend the Knights’ best.

READ MORE: Max Pacioretty ‘very excited to be in Vegas’ after bombshell trade

Claude Julien was certainly hoping for a better defensive effort from the newly-formed partnership of Mike Reilly and Jeff Petry.

They are players with the same type of footprint: the same strengths and weaknesses. Neither of these players loves going into get the dump-in in the corner, so that is not ideal, but someone has to do the hard work and take the hit to make the play. So, instinctively, they are not a good pair together. They both like to push the play up ice, too, and join the rush, which means — again — no one is paying attention to the real job at hand by Carey Price.

They also are both inclined to lose their man at times in the defensive zone, as well as being soft on sticks and soft on bodies.

It’s just not a pair that complements each other well at all, and one shouldn’t expect to see these two remain together. It’s not shocking that Petry was on for two goals against. It’s not shocking that they had a bad game together. But what does Julien do? Brett Kulak and Jordie Benn probably can’t handle second pairing minutes or match-ups.

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See, we always come back to the same issue — that the head coach has to keep putting a square peg in a round hole, until the GM gets him some better square pegs.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Montreal Canadiens swept away by the Colorado Avalanche

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Head coach Claude Julien made an interesting change to the roster in Las Vegas, putting Nicolas Deslauriers back in and removing Charles Hudon. Ryan Reeves is on the Golden Knights, so this had some bearing on his decision, one would imagine.

But there might just be more to it, too.

Hudon is at a crossroads in his career. He was a strong American Hockey League player, but he has not found his way in the NHL. Hudon has moments of brilliance and you think he is certainly an NHL player when he finds his best self, but the problem is he is too often not his best self.

In Arizona, Hudon went through the entire game without doing a thing. He wasn’t effective offensively. He really could not even get the puck on his stick. Now this happens from time to time to everyone, but here’s the issue: While he doesn’t have the puck and he is defending, he simply is not of an NHL calibre. Hudon is the worst plus/minus player on the team, and if you are one of those inclined to say that is an outdated statistic, then know that his Corsi is also horrible.

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It’s a fork in the road for Hudon, and if he does not figure this all out very soon, then he will be one of those players getting called up or down depending on the day, and wondering if he will pack a suitcase this time when he’s on the waiver wire.

That sounds a bit rough to many, no doubt, but when Joel Armia gets healthy, expect that it won’t be Kenny Agostino, Nicolas Deslauriers or Michael Chaput that goes down. Expect that it will be Hudon.

 

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