The Montreal Canadiens’ road trip has been a spectacular success so far, with a three and one record in the four games played. Wins over the Golden Knights, Coyotes, and Panthers make the final two contests against the Lightning and Stars a chance to be even better than the .500 record that was the place mark for success.
The most difficult of the contests was Saturday night in Tampa Bay, as the NHL’s best team invited the Habs to town knowing that Montreal played the night before.
How many Jesperi Kotkaniemis were out there in this game?
He was everywhere. It’s hard to believe that he reads the play as well as he does, considering his age. He reads the game one event ahead of the puck all the time. He goes to where it is going, not to where it is, and he always seems to know where it is going.
You don’t teach this vision. This is the vision that another Habs third pick overall, Alex Galchenyuk, never had and never found. Kotkaniemi had perhaps his best game of the season in this one. In fact, the growth from game to game is extraordinary. He’s been on a roll recently, showing more comfort each time out for the last two weeks. Just when you thought that he may be hitting the wall in a long, grinding NHL season, he’s instead looking like he’s finding his best self.
He does so many little things so intelligently — looks off the check, dummies his passing target, takes the right side of the puck, angles off when he forechecks to take away options and protects the puck with his long reach. It’s a long list of little things that he isn’t supposed to accomplish just yet.
The goals certainly haven’t come at the pace that they will, but it won’t take long. He seems to be at the hitting the post stage. That half inch a difference is around the corner. Sometimes you watch him at 18 years of age and think that it could be greatness that he achieves at 23, but you have to also make sure that you don’t get too ahead of yourself, because so much can happen to these young men in the course of time.
However, he has his head squarely on his shoulders, and this dreaded life turn should not hit him. His teammates speak of a down-to-earth person who listens well, and is anxious to learn with a modest way about him.
When he fills out to win more puck battles and matures physically, it’s easy to get very excited that the Habs could have one of the top five centres in the NHL.
Another player who doesn’t have the same creativity or talent as Kotkaniemi, but has the same best aspect of his game, is Artturi Lehkonen. The young Lehkonen gets himself into some awful scoring slumps, but even when he is not scoring, he is an absolute beauty for coaches to have on their team, because he never hurts you. He’s always doing the intelligent thing.
Lehkonen also cuts off the angles beautifully when he is defending. He protects the puck equally well and that makes him one of the go-to penalty killers on the Habs. He makes smart decisions; he reads the play. Lehkonen is the type of player, much like Lars Eller, who is a needed complement piece on a Stanley Cup champion. He’s the type of player on a champion who is thwarting everything all the time that the opponent expects he should be able to achieve, but just finds frustration instead.
Fans can know that coaches love Lehkonen because whenever he slumps, goals-wise, he’s never sent to the press box. This is because they know that while he struggles to find his offensive touch, he is still a valuable player.
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Jordie Benn doesn’t make it to the Wilde Horses category often, but this had to be one of his best. Benn faked a shot then passed to Kenny Agostino for a tally, then got a superb shot upstairs for a goal, as well. Benn isn’t known for any offence most of the time, but some nights it just comes together and this was one of them.
The Benn and Brett Kulak partnership was the best of the three Habs pairings. They didn’t get a lot of minutes and it’s always easier that way, but that doesn’t take away from how good they were when they did hit the ice. Kulak and Benn led the defenders in plus-minus on the night, with both having plus-three ratings.
Phillip Danault had a plus-three for the forwards.
Give credit to the Habs’ coaching staff for embracing the 200-foot game. Every one of the Habs’ defencemen is ready to join the rush, and every one of the Habs’ forwards is expected to be responsible for covering the points for those defencemen. It’s the modern 200-foot game in the NHL.
In the second period, when Andrew Shaw scored on a one-timer, it was Shea Weber standing in front of the net waiting for the rebound — Shea Weber! Everyone is embracing the future of hockey on the Habs today. It’s impressive, and it was easy to believe that Claude Julien didn’t have it in him because of his long held beliefs of how you are supposed to win at this game, but credit to him for understanding and growing with change.
The entire coaching staff is ready to play this type of hockey. It’s why the Habs are on so many nights outshooting their opponent by a margin of about 40 to 20. Now, it’s one thing to do this to the Coyotes, but to walk into the Lightning’s building and do it there is another thing in entirely.
The Habs didn’t back down one bit, and didn’t feel overmatched one bit. They outshot Tampa 38 to 32. No one thought this was possible in June — certainly, no one thought any of this was possible in June.
The first two goals against are certainly not on Jeff Petry and Mike Reilly, but they were both on the ice for the Tampa markers.
Petry and Reilly is just not a wise partnership. They both play the same game and they’re both a little soft on the puck at times in the defensive zone. This creates scenarios where they both aren’t doing the hard thing, like going in the corner first when there is an onrushing forward with a head of steam ready to perhaps paste you into the boards.
This is why the Mete and Weber partnership is working so well.
Victor Mete likes to use his speed to enter the offensive zone on the rush, and he has an outstanding first pass when he has control in the defensive zone. He pinches in and he chips it well, too. This is perfect for Mete, who has a partner who will then take care of the defensive zone for him — show the strength in one-on-one battles in front of the net that he does not have.
Weber does all that Mete can’t do that well; Mete does all that Weber can’t do as well. They complement each other. Reilly and Petry, while both strong players, do not complement each other. However, this is the Habs’ defence at the moment. It is what they have, and they’re surviving extremely well so far this season. Next season, though, it is easy to imagine that it will be different than this.
There have been times recently that Carey Price has struggled.
It’s not fair to say that Price has been top five in the league for a little while now. However, it’s also not fair to suggest he is in the realm of Antti Niemi. The Habs’ backup this season has struggled with one of the worst save percentages in the entire NHL, and this was one of his worst games of the year.
Niemi allowed four goals on the first 14 shots that he faced, losing his net on two of those first four goals. Someone seeing the shot from 15 feet and then, on another goal, from seven feet might say that he didn’t have a chance, but he did. He lost his net. He didn’t know where he was standing, and where he was standing was at least a foot, if not two feet, out of place.
If he were playing in the proper position, then he would have stopped both Tampa goals early. Some saves are for show, and some saves are for simply standing in the right spot, so making the save is even possible.
In the third period, the adventure got worse. He let out a soft rebound on a 65-foot floater to allow the 5-5 goal. Minutes later, he had a 40-foot floater and he couldn’t even catch it. Niemi was good last year, but the Habs brass should have known that this was a one-off. He is not good enough to be an NHL goaltender. This is harsh, but this is true. The Habs have a good goalie pipeline with the best perhaps on the depth chart being Cayden Primeau, who is still years out. Charlie Lindgren is capable but injured right now. He is a better goalie than Niemi. And if the Habs wanted real protection this season for an often-injured Carey Price, then they should have been more aware that Niemi’s play last year was not sustainable.
In this one, by the end, Niemi was struggling with dump-ins from 75 feet, so it was no surprise that Niemi couldn’t get it to overtime as the Habs lost 6-5. We’ll see how it shakes out, but this is going to require a healthy Price going forward.
Carey Price’s visit to the doctor seemed to go well. The Canadiens’ head coach, Claude Julien, said that Price is progressing. Reading between the lines on that, Julien would not describe it that way if the doctor had reported something significant.
The lower body injury has been irritating Price for a little while, it has been said. He was put on the injured reserve list back dated to December 22nd. Not to be too much of a doctor on this one, but “irritation” is exactly how one describes a nagging groin problem. This is also a common problem for goalies who are stretching out in even more improbable ways these days.
The Habs have not ruled out that Price could be flown in to play the Stars in Dallas on New Year’s Eve.
Meanwhile, the World Junior Championships continue in Vancouver and Victoria. The Habs have seven prospects in the event, and they are all playing extremely well so far.
Two players that have really stood out are Alexander Romanov and Ryan Poehling. Romanov is the best defender on the Russian team so far. He has been a dominant force and it’s already very clear that the Habs absolutely nailed what was a second-round pick and kept completely under the radar.
The reaction on draft day was “Who?” when Romanov was selected, but everyone knows who he is now. The other player who is shining is Poehling, who was moved into the centre role where he belongs when Jack Hughes was listed as day-to-day and left out of the lineup.
Poehling had a three point night, with a gorgeous short-handed goal for the USA and added two assists. He is also a terrific 200-foot player, which is obvious that he is ahead of his peers, intellectually. The Habs have had a very competitive turnaround after the embarrassment of last season, and the future is looking extremely bright.