New Year’s Eve marked the final contest in a six-game road trip for the Montreal Canadiens.
It was a tall order to ask the Habs to win a third game in four nights with travel between Miami, Tampa Bay and Texas. With a loss, the Habs would actually go into 2019 outside of the playoff picture, lagging one point behind the surging New York Islanders. A win would be another notch for the club to show they’re not going away.
In the end, the Canadiens dumped the Dallas Stars, earning a 3-2 victory in overtime.
- Phillip Danault has upped his offensive output significantly in recent games. Adding two goals in Dallas, Danault has nine points in the last five games and continues to lead the second line to impressive overall Corsi numbers. Danault likely only has a 40-point ceiling per season in his career, but he does so many other things right. What produces a champion is a complicated formula, but one thing that matters is having a terrific 200-foot centre that you can rely on to match up well against top sniping centres. There is a spot for Danault no matter how much the youth of the team progresses. Max Domi, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Ryan Poehling and Danault would be a formidable four down the middle for the Habs. There may not be a game breaker on it, but one could see a day when Domi is the only one with fewer gifts defensively than the others. Just last season, the Habs were likely the worst team in the entire league down the middle. Two years from now, they have a very good chance of one through four being among the best, especially considering how intelligently they would be as a group overall.
- Jordie Benn is playing his best hockey for the Habs in a long time. The formula is simple: Benn is a 5-6 defenceman. When he gets the right matchups, not facing the stars of the opposition, and plays lower minutes then he can achieve his objectives. Benn is partnering with Brett Kulak, and for the second straight game, they were solid and nearly mistake-free. It’s been said before but it’s worth repeating that the return of Shea Weber has moved everyone down the depth chart into places they can mostly handle. At times, it’s a little too much for Victor Mete to be playing with Weber, facing the top players and on the ice so much, but the young man is also adapting nicely, too. The overall point remains the same: when the Habs are able to get a partner for Weber who can clearly handle the minutes and matchups, pushing Mete down the depth chart into a more comfortable role, then a lot of good things can happen for the Montreal Canadiens. The future you have been waiting for is not that far away after all. Is it Josh Brook? Is it Alexander Romanov? Both are second-round draft choices who are impressing this season in huge ways. There’s a chance. If they land as pros in the next two years, another big hole has been filled. For now, Benn on the third pair is working.
- Credit to the Habs coaching staff again, led by Claude Julien. He’s been around coaching for 30 years and has seen a lot of changes in how the game has been played. If you would have told Julien when he was playing minor league defence that he would embrace a style where all five players will attack and all five players will defend, he would not have believed he could adapt. There were the Habs, though, attacking all night, with the defence often leading the rushes. On the Habs’ goal in the first period, it was Benn who rushed it into the zone. He then actually passed it to Kulak, who was even deeper than Benn on the rush. Kulak took it behind the net, and then it ended with Danault getting the feed for the goal. This goal does not happen for Julien even in 2017. It’s been remarkable to watch; game after game, it happens. In Tampa Bay, Weber was three feet in front of the net waiting for a rebound. Weber probably doesn’t even believe this is his role at times, if he sees the opportunity to join the rush. This is the new 200-foot game in the NHL. And if you think this is the end of it, it’s just getting started: five years from now, it could be that everyone is a rover. Julien is ready for it.
- The Habs won it with speed in overtime. The head coach made intelligent choices right from the first shift with Jeff Petry, Paul Byron and Max Domi. It took 14 seconds for Byron to be too fast for his man with the pass to Petry, who was also too fast for his man. The Habs win 3-2. They finish the road trip with a 4-2 mark.
- It was a much more solid game for Antti Niemi than in Tampa Bay, when it certainly seemed as if he was frazzled. However, Niemi was the goat on the first goal. He simply lost his net on the shot. If he doesn’t overcommit to losing the long side of the net, he doesn’t even have to move to make the save on the 1-1 goal. To be fair, this is just a single moment that cost the Habs. Overall, Niemi had a strong night, as the Canadiens were a tired bunch. It was a gruelling six-game ride, and this was the only one where they were second best everywhere but the scoreboard. It was a strong road swing overall, in which the Habs proved that they won’t go away easily this season and will continue to eye much better results than was thought possible in September.
- It was a difficult night for Jonathan Drouin. He has to have the puck on his stick more than he did in this one. That line did a lot of defending in Dallas. It’s harder on the road for Domi and Drouin when Julien can’t control the matchups. The two together are not the Habs’ best defensively so they need a good home line matchup. They need some Julien help to be at their best, and the head coach has done a strong job on that front overall.
- The World Junior Championship continues to be a revelation for the Habs prospects. It seems as if a different one stands out every night. On New Year’s Eve, it was time for Alexander Romanov to show that he can shine against the best that Canada has to offer. Romanov was on for much of the third period. He was the go-to defender as the Russians held on for a 2-1 upset in Vancouver. Romanov is smooth. He doesn’t get fazed at all in any facet of the game. When he defends, he has his head on a swivel, finding danger and neutralizing it. He makes superb outlet passes, he joins the rush, he does it all. This draft pick was a theft. He will likely be on the all-star team for the tourney on defence, one would imagine. He leads the tourney in points among defenders. He didn’t seem to leave the ice in the third period as the Russians beat Canada. Trevor Timmins shocked the hockey world when he made his announcement that the early second-rounder was a player not many had heard of — no one is shocked now. It’s been Romanov’s coming out party.