After a successful 4-2 road trip, the Montreal Canadiens returned home to the Bell Centre with Carey Price back in the lineup, having recovered from what has been described as an irritating lower-body injury. The Habs also had another couple of lineup changes as Joel Armia returned and Andrew Shaw was out with a neck injury. Shaw is going through concussion protocols, so the worries continue on that vital front for him. The Habs tried to take advantage of the fact that the Vancouver Canucks had to play the previous night, winning in overtime in Ottawa.
- It’s the best hockey that Jeff Petry has played since he became a Canadiens player. The new NHL style is perfectly suited for him. Petry looks more like a rover than a defenceman these days. This modern new game for defenders is fascinating to watch. For Petry, it means he can join the rush whenever he wants. There was one shift in the first period where Petry led the rush, then manoeuvred around the offensive zone like he was Bobby Orr. He then took a shot and, without the puck, continued to skate large circles around the offensive zone. It was remarkable to watch. At no point did Petry think he had to go back to the point. The forward who was covering for him didn’t try to leave the point, either. It’s so compelling to watch this new hockey play out in so many different ways. Petry is best at it, but there are many surprises. Jordie Benn joins the rush. Shea Weber has been seen in front of the net waiting for a rebound. Mike Reilly is freestyling like it’s 1989. This is not Devils hockey circa boring start to finish. This is an entirely new game of hockey and the Habs are as innovative at it as any team in the league right now. Everyone has the green light when they have a chance. Petry seems to see a chance every time he has the puck. What a joy this must be for the smooth-skating Petry to be able to use his wheels like this, allowing him to be the best he can be. It’s fun to watch as well. What a credit to this new coaching staff as a group to embrace this.
- You can probably count the number of times on one hand this entire season that Jesperi Kotkaniemi has actually looked at the player he is passing to. He is the master of deception. He is always dummying the defender. It’s remarkable to watch. On the Habs’ goal in the first period, he made a low-percentage pass through the Canucks defender that would be picked off 90 times out of 100. But on this occasion it was Kotkaniemi looking like he was going to pass it elsewhere and just that brief moment of duplicity confused the Vancouver defender. This allowed the pass to get to target Jordie Benn and he wired the shot home from the point for the 1-0 lead. It is a small thing, but these small things are everything in the NHL when doing the predictable is usually stopped by these intelligent upper-echelon players. Another aspect of Kotkaniemi’s game that is minor but highly developed is his ability to saucer pass. He has the smarts to know that a pass on the ice won’t make it to target. Kotkaniemi lifts it off the ice where it’s hard to defend and lands it right at his winger’s stick nearly every time. His vision is immaculate. His intelligence is off the charts. With the assist, this 18-year-old has totalled 19 points in 41 games. He is on pace for 38 points in the NHL while the draft pick the experts expected the Habs to take, Filip Zadina, had one assist in five disappointing games for the Czech Republic at the world juniors. That’s a stunning difference in career progression for the two in just five months. Zadina may be regressing while Kotkaniemi seems to develop something new and important to his skill set every five games. The future may be different, but today sure looks like one has much brighter tomorrows than the other.
- The Habs’ top line was doing so very little halfway through the contest. Jonathan Drouin maybe had the puck on his stick three or four times. Suddenly, it’s one tiny opening. Max Domi gets it up to a streaking Drouin. He turns a bad angle half-breakaway into a perfectly placed shot to make it 2-0 Habs. Goal-scorers’ goal. Simple as that. Quiet all night, but one moment changes everything. The Habs were on their heels, not looking that effective; in a moment, it’s a vital two-goal cushion. With 13 goals on the season, Drouin is projected to 26 goals, which would be a career best, beating his 21 for Tampa Bay. His 33 points so far projects to 66 overall, which also knocks out of the park his career-best 53. Remember, fans, Drouin is still only 23 years old. He has not topped out here yet. He might even learn how to be better defensively. Not likely a lot better, but just a little better would go a long way.
- It’s a vital point in the second period with the Canucks having a 3-on-1. Their best scorer last season, Brock Boeser, has the puck. It’s a tenuous situation with Carey Price likely to face a high-quality shot from one of the three players attacking, but Shea Weber reads it all perfectly. He slides to block the shot with great skill and he gets a shin pad on it. The shot rolls harmlessly into the corner. It’s a heady play from Weber. It’s likely a goal saver. He took the pass away, then he took the shot away, too. That’s not on the scoresheet at the end of the game except as a blocked shot, but it’s much more than that in this one.
- Last season’s Victor Mete had another solid game. He’s skating up ice with more confidence. He wants to be a part of it more. Confidence is a funny thing.
- Carey Price missed a week with what the coach described as an irritation. He certainly didn’t look irritated in his return to the net. Price made 33 saves to earn the shutout as the Habs won 2-0 on a night they didn’t have their best legs or speed, but protected their goalie enough for him to shine on the shots that did come his way.
- With five wins in their last six games, the Habs as a whole are playing close to their best hockey of the season. Their only loss in the last six was against the Lightning in Tampa Bay and if Antti Niemi hadn’t had a rough night, they would have won that one too. There were a couple of bad plays that stood out. Joel Armia with a beautiful pass into the slot that Carey Price had to stop sticks out, but all in all, this ‘Wilde Goats’ section gets a pass when the Habs are putting together this type of entertaining and competitive hockey. Next up is Nashville on Saturday night with P.K. Subban back healthy. It should be a good one. They pretty much all are these days. A great season to be following this team. They have played 41 and competed hard in about 37 of them. That’s impressive.
WATCH: What to look forward to in the New Year for the Montreal Canadiens
- The two best Habs prospects at the World Junior Championships might just be the best two players at their position in the entire tournament as they head into the semi-finals. Ryan Poehling of the United States leads the event in points with eight, tied with Morgan Frost of Canada, who has been eliminated. That means there is a very good chance that Poehling will finish the tourney with the top points total. He’s been dominant, playing his usual smart 200-foot game and showing the offensive flash that people who don’t watch him enough at Saint Cloud State don’t think he has. Remember, though, that Poehling is a point-per-game player at the Minnesota college. Poehling tends to elevate his game the bigger the game gets. Having watched him a lot when he plays for Saint Cloud, Poehling can at times, when the score gets out of hand, lose his highest motivation. He loses hunger when the game isn’t close. When it matters, he’s outstanding, as witnessed in Vancouver. Poehling can become a pro as soon as the college season ends, and the Habs should make sure they offer up a tasty enough carrot that he signs immediately to perhaps even play the last games of the regular season and into the playoffs. If his contract status remains uncertain until the summer or fall, there will be a lot of nervous fans worried that he could become an eventual free agent. The other prospect who is having a coming-out party is Alexander Romanov of Russia. He could be the rearguard that the Habs have been looking for on the left side. The second-round pick last year is probably the best defender at the event, which is extraordinary considering he’s only 18. Romanov is just one point off the tourney lead and he has chipped in with a goal as well. Romanov reads the play beautifully at all times. He is extremely intelligent. Before the tourney, it was thought that Josh Brook would have his best moments during this important week in a prospect’s career, but it has been Romanov who has shone. It’s hard to imagine considering how young that he is that he arrives in Montreal as early as next season, but considering the way he is playing, don’t rule anything out.
- The injury to Andrew Shaw when Joel Armia returned saved Marc Bergevin from having to make a difficult roster decision. When the forwards are all healthy, you should expect Charles Hudon to be waived through to Laval. It may be the end of the line for Hudon here as an NHLer. He doesn’t play a 200-foot game enough to be a bona fide NHL player, and enough years have passed to easily see that there is no upside left for this player. He makes strong plays periodically, but there are not enough of them. Couple that with his penchant to not defend well, and you have what could be the end. We will see if the club ever gets healthy enough for Bergevin to be forced to make this decision, but it is likely coming sooner rather than later. There won’t be much consternation in these parts over it in comparison to Nikita Scherbak, who may still find his better self in his career. Hudon has had enough time to show what he’s got, and it is not enough, sadly. If he were more reliable on the defensive side of the puck, his lack of offence would be forgiven. You should expect him to clear waivers, unlike Jacob De La Rose and Scherbak.