We are firmly into the second half of the season and the Montreal Canadiens are in a playoff spot, much to the surprise of most of the hockey world.
The Habs started Friday night only two points behind the Boston Bruins and three behind the Toronto Maple Leafs. It’s remarkable how important each game is this season. The Habs could win a couple and be in second place hosting a playoff round, or they could lose a couple and not make the playoffs at all. It very well might be that close for the Habs when the season concludes. The Columbus Blue Jackets hosted the Habs on a Friday night.
- Tomas Tatar was the throw-in that Marc Bergevin got in the Max Pacioretty deal. The main piece was first-round draft pick Nick Suzuki. Tatar was that extra that George McPhee wanted to get off his payroll after he didn’t work out in Las Vegas during their playoff run. Let’s asses the deal not even considering that Suzuki is lighting it up in the Ontario Hockey league, and not even considering that the Habs also get a second-round draft choice this year as well. Just consider the one-for-one Pacioretty versus Tatar this season. Add the two goals that Tatar scored in this one, including an absolutely dynamic second goal where he was silky smooth roofing the breakaway on the forehand, and the stats are very much in the Habs GM’s favour. Tatar has 16 goals, 20 assists for 36 points at the age 28. At the age of 30, Pacioretty has 12 goals and 12 assists for 24 points. Pacioretty missed a handful of games so has only played 36 while Tatar has remained healthy. Pacioretty is on pace to score 20 goals this season after counting only 17 last season. The perennial 30-goal scorer may be diminishing, but waiting for next season is fair before that is proven at all as sometimes it takes time to adjust to your new team, though Tatar doesn’t seem to be finding that an issue in Montreal.
- It appears the ceiling of Phillip Danault is higher than 40 points per season. Danault has suddenly found another level in the past two months that he has not ever had. Danault is still the steady and strong influence on defence, but remarkably, he is absolutely rolling offensively. Danault had an assist on Tatar’s second goal for 18 points in his last 18 games. This is unbelievable really. Danault has 32 points on the season now as he will surely break the 40 point plateau for the first time in his career. Danault has a place on this team for a long time. Great teams, even championship teams, almost always have a third-line centre who can influence the contest on offence on a good night, and always contend against the other team’s best centre. This is Danault exactly.
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- The partnership of Brett Kulak and Jordie Benn has been one of the reasons the Habs have been a lot tighter on defence in the last month. In this one, Benn had some difficult moments, but Kulak continues to be a surprising revelation. Kulak started the season in Laval, but it would be shocking if he sees the suburbs again this season. Kulak played much of the season with the Calgary Flames last year, but they were surprisingly ready to let him go for a couple of minor leaguers. Kulak was rock steady in this one, not only taking care of his own work but covering for Benn at key moments as well. When you can get a third pairing to be this steady, you have a good chance of achieving your goals overall.
- The last two games before Friday night in Columbus, the Habs were dominated in Boston Monday and at home against the Florida Panthers Tuesday. It was the end of a six-games-in-nine-nights stretch and the club had nothing left. They had dead legs. They relied on their goaltenders who shone brightly. Carey Price was spectacular in Boston and then Antti Niemi was even better against the Panthers with 52 saves in 53 shots for the game of his life. The Habs went back to Price in Ohio, and again the goalie shone. Price strong as the Habs won 4-1 with Price stopping 33 of 34 shots. Wasn’t long ago that the save percentage of Price was a growing concern. Not any more as he is now up to 913 on the season.
- Matthew Peca is back in the line-up and he added to the Habs weapon of speed. Peca was strong on the forecheck with his speed and he was slightly harder working and tenacious as well as trying to keep his spot. He will have to beat out Michael Chaput though when Paul Byron has finished serving his three-game suspension. And he should win the spot over Chaput. They are equal in terms of defensive responsibilities handled, while Peca can provide the odd moment of offence. Chaput still doesn’t have a goal in 25 games. It will be interesting to see what happens in three games because Peca will take the spot over Chaput if he continues to play like he did in Ohio.
- The Montreal Canadiens have won four-straight games. They are tied with the Boston Bruins and only one point behind the Toronto Maple Leafs. That’s some pretty heady company for a Habs team that was supposed draft top five again. Naturally, with this script, there are no goats to speak of in this one.
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- The legendary Canadiens head coach Scotty Bowman was interviewed on Friday and he spoke highly of Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Bowman said “I saw Jean Beliveau with the Victoriaville Juniors at age 16. No one compares to Jean but Kotkaniemi at 18 has a lot of Jean’s characteristics in his game.” If anyone else tried this comparison, they would be laughed out of the rink, but when it is Bowman you stand up and take note. Bowman also added: “When he’s about 22, he’ll be the No.1 centre for Montreal.” Let me go one farther than that in suggesting that it won’t take as long as the age of 22. It’s easy to see Kotkaniemi as the No. 1 centre for the Habs as soon as the season after next. He may find his top-line groove as soon as the age of 20. Max Domi will remain the No. 1 centre next season, one expects. After that, with Kotkaniemi’s acumen on defence, more weight on his frame, vision and passing on offence, there’s nothing stopping this player from being a number one. It was my belief that he wasn’t going to see the puck enough to benefit him to stay in Montreal this season, but when you see the goal he scored on Tuesday night with that highlight reel goal against the Florida Panthers, you realize he can do it all right here in the NHL already. If you can believe it, he completely belongs in the NHL at 18. It may just be that Kotkaniemi is the best player of his draft class.