It’s set to be a busy week for the Montreal Canadiens, starting with Monday night’s visit from the Minnesota Wild at the Bell Centre. After that, the Habs take to the road for two games in Detroit and St. Louis, returning home to face the Colorado Avalanche on Saturday night.
The Habs had a little something to prove on Monday night, as they were previously crushed by the Wild, losing 7-1 in Saint Paul in perhaps the worst game for Montreal this season. But as the contest wrapped up, the Wild managed to shut out the Habs 1-0.
- Plenty has been written about the skill set of Max Domi — it did not come as advertised. Domi has been far better than his numbers in Arizona would have indicated. However, there’s another factor to consider here that does not get spoken of regularly: Domi has outstanding work habits. He hustles for everything and sets a strong example for the rest of his team. He has a competitive edge that is a lot like Brendan Gallagher’s engine. Domi hates to lose, and despite his smaller frame, he takes no attitude from bigger men. General manager Marc Bergevin has done well here, for sure. You can certainly see Domi as the type of player who gets the big goal in the big game and who fights just a little harder to draw the penalty with his relentless hunger. There is so much to like about this player that while the point totals slow down to a more expected pace, his usefulness does not abate one bit.
- The Habs’ power play is 31st in a 31-team league. It was time to try something new, and that new thing seemed to have the possibility of working. If it doesn’t work with goals, it at least shows everyone that one of the aspects of a good power play is that you have to work hard. Artturi Lehkonen was given a chance on the right side, and while his slapshot one-time attempts were not at the level of Alex Galchenyuk, the other strengths he brought to the power play were vital. Lehkonen won loose pucks time and time again. You cannot expect to see the opposition simply slide into a passive box and let the puck be passed around until a superb opportunity arises. A good penalty kill is taking time and space away so you have to work hard to win those dicey moments of decision. Jonathan Drouin is frustratingly weak at this. He simply does not work hard at winning the puck when challenged. Drouin should be one of the best in the world with the man advantage so he either needs to work harder or pass it off and wait for a one-timer opportunity after someone else has won the battle for possession. Also, on the left side, the Habs put Jesperi Kotkaniemi, and this worked as well. What Kotkaniemi does well is he keeps his head on a swivel and his legs moving. Static players are easy to defend. When players like Kotkaniemi are moving, then the defender needs to have his head on a swivel even better to get his angles right. A defender hates having to also worry about getting his angles right to block off lanes. He prefers if you just stay static and he can figure out the math easily enough. These changes have some potential. If you’re 31st, as a coaching staff, you better get the message to the top guys that movement and hard work make a difference.
- It’s late in the second period, and the game is still scoreless. The Wild appear to have a breakaway. In fact, it might just be a two-on-zero, but then along comes Paul Byron showing all the speed that he possesses. Byron worked his tail off, managing to thwart both of the Minnesota players, and they didn’t even get a shot away. How does a player who brings that much to the table end up on the waiver wire? What a coup by Bergevin. He kills penalties, he recently showed that he should be on the ice pretty much all the time in three-on-three overtime, he works hard defensively and he scores 20 goals in a season. Remarkable acquisition. Still a stunner after all this time.
- Carey Price is all the way back now. He has figured out whatever was ailing him. Price had a save percentage of around 890 at one point this season. Since Dec. 1, he is top-five in major categories like save percentage and goals against average. It’s a long way back to respectability when you have struggled that much early in the season, but Price is already at 910 on the season. His target is 920 for Price to say he was Price. The way he’s moving and seeing the puck, it would seem that this is a possibility.
- The biggest concern in this one is Shea Weber. He took a shot in the face in the first period. He was in a lot of pain at the bench after but somehow managed to play more hockey and conclude the first period. However, he did not return and was ruled out for the rest of the night late in the second period. An injury to Weber would be devastating to the Habs’ fortunes. This club turned into a much better team on defence with Weber playing against the top players on the top pairing. He brought a better Victor Mete along with him. He made Jeff Petry play with a freedom he never had when he didn’t have to play against the top opposition. He turned Jordie Benn into a much more serviceable player. That all stops if Weber is gone for an extended period. Weber could have suffered a fracture to the face on the shot. The Habs already lost Noah Juulsen to this type of injury. Habs fans will hope that it is not a fracture but just a precaution in the moment and that Weber can play soon with a full shield. We shall know in the morning. The Habs were surprisingly not bad without Weber this season. They’re better with him, clearly.
- When Joel Armia makes a defensive blunder, he really swings for the fences. Armia loses his concentration badly at times. He did it again in the second period with a superb clean pass to the opposition, who had a gorgeous chance. Again, Price bailed Armia out. Not saying Armia is a bad defensive player — he’s actually good, but when he’s not in the moment, his head really scrambles in brilliantly extraordinary ways.
- That was nothing though compared to the gigantic blunder that finally broke the scoreless tie. Jeff Petry has the puck in his own zone. He tries a no-look backhand pass to his partner Mike Reilly, but it curls badly off his blade and right onto the stick of three waiting Wild players. One sets the screen and the other locks in, moving around Carey Price, and that’s about as easy as it gets. It was one of those games where the longer it went on without a goal, the more important it was to score that goal, and in this one, it was Petry with a gift to the Wild.
- General manager Marc Bergevin eased the minds of every long-term thinker among Habs fans on Monday. Bergevin unequivocally let it be known that he will not make a trade to improve his team for the short term while hurting the long-term fortunes of the club. Bergevin indicated he will not trade a first-round draft choice for a rental at the trade deadline to improve the team this year, sacrificing a much better seven-year asset in the long term. He even went further to indicate he wasn’t really interested in any exchange that hurt the long-term future of the team. What a relief, because while this team is good and getting better, it needs Ryan Poehling, Nick Suzuki, Alexander Romanov, Josh Brook and a more mature, dominant Jesperi Kotkaniemi to be really, truly contending. The building blocks are moving into place in a big way for the Habs, but the maturity of the core and of the future is not there yet. When the aforementioned are ready to shine, the nucleus will still be in the game. Even Weber and Price will still be playing strong hockey when all of the others are ready to be their best. The timing is quite good, and it’s all shaping up well for 2021 or 2022 but not 2019, though one can see already how the pieces are falling into place.
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- The biggest surprise from the organization in a while is that they have sent a veteran to the Laval Rocket, who seemed to have been in the good graces of the club. Every chance that David Schlemko got to play, which was on the rare occasion that he wasn’t injured or contemplating injury, he played. The pattern was expected to repeat, with Schlemko getting healthy again and therefore quickly replacing someone in the lineup who did nothing wrong but did not get injured as much. Yet, here we are: Schlemko is healthy and, for once, he is not getting his spot back on the blue line. It seems the Habs organization has finally grown tired of Schlemko’s inability to go more than a month without his body falling apart again. He moves on to the waiver wire, and we will learn at noon Tuesday whether any one of the other clubs in the NHL wants to pick up the walking Band-Aid. Expect the Oilers to give Schlemko a chance and make a claim, as a Band-Aid would be a perfect fit for the bloody mess that is the Oilers’ blue line. An injured Schlemko would be much better than the healthy 5-6 defencemen on the Oilers. Then again, Peter Chiarelli may take a pass on Schlemko, as the Oilers GM frowns on any defenders who can actually move the puck forward.
- Carey Price will not go to the NHL All-Star game in San Jose. The only thing sad for Price here is that San Jose is warm and sunny. The actual game is a storm of quality shots, and it’s not what he needs. He doesn’t need to be an acrobat in a skills contest where the only one who can’t possibly show his skills is the goalie without any help. Price recently credited rest to a shutout against the Vancouver Canucks so he doesn’t need a six-hour flight and then 40 quality shots from 10 feet away and lateral movement on endless quality chances. The organization has said that Price has a nagging injury that irritates him and has for a long time. You want to feel irritated? Try making saves at the all-star game.