The Montreal Canadiens, riding a four-game winning streak, faced the Philadelphia Flyers at the Bell Centre on Saturday night.
The Habs were trying to complete an extremely busy week with perfection and a meteoric rise up the standings. With a win, the Habs had a chance to pass both the Toronto Maple Leafs and Boston Bruins into second place in the Atlantic Division.
After falling to the Flyers 5-2, though, that winning streak came to an end.
It’s time for some praise and some re-evaluation of what Phillip Danault brings to the Montreal Canadiens.
It’s long been thought that this is a two-way centre with limited upside, offensively: that he has a 40-point ceiling each season, while contributing as a third-line centre on a good team. These projections are looking very much like they are too low, both offensively and defensively.
On the offensive side of the puck, where it seemed as if Danault could not ever be considered as a first- or second-line centre, Danault has 18 points in his last 19 games. This is without any power play time, though that’s not worth a lot this season for Habs fans, sadly.
It’s a small sample size, of course, but a point per game for a quarter of the season is remarkable, and well beyond what one calls a third-line centre.
Now to the defensive side of the puck, where Danault is starting to become — wait for it — elite. Yes, he is becoming elite as a defensive centre in the NHL. He is matching up this season against the best centres around the league and he is driving the play for the Habs, mostly with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar.
These three players aren’t supposed to be among the best lines in the Eastern Conference, but they certainly are. Danault is now lined up with Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin, which is intelligent from the head coach. He puts his best defensive centre with a player who has lapses, like Drouin does, to shield him from those moments. Danault, meanwhile, gets the hardest match-ups with the most defensive zone starts, yet he is managing to control the game.
As you imagine the future of the Habs with the World Junior Championships MVP Ryan Poehling coming, you then have Max Domi, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Danault and Poehling. What number designation each of these centres are going to have is a mystery. They may all have nights when they feel like the number one centre and other nights when they feel like the number four. Just because Danault is hot, it doesn’t make him an 80-point player. Nor is he a 40-point player. He is somewhere in the middle at 60 points, and with the way he plays defensively, that’s a remarkable hockey player. For Marc Bergevin, that was an absolute theft — acquiring Danault for a player who soon retired in Tomas Fleischmann, and a player who just got sent through the waiver wire in Dale Weise.
It would have been right for Jeff Petry to represent the Habs at the all-star game, and it would have been an honour for him to be in San Jose next weekend as his first time chosen. He has been outstanding at both ends of the ice.
Petry’s first period was an excellent example of how good he’s been. He had chances in tight; he danced along the blue line, keeping in the puck while fighting off checkers. He saved a huge chance with superb speed that would have been a breakaway, but Petry turned it into a completely broken up chance. Petry’s 10 goals on the season find him top five among defenders in the league, and he enjoys his second-pair role behind Shea Weber, thriving on less ice time and easier match-ups.
Petry has had a good career since leaving Edmonton, and this is the best that he has ever been. He should be heading to California next week.
WATCH: Call of the Wilde — Winning streak continues
Charles Hudon finally got a chance to get back into the lineup for the Habs, and in this game, he was hungry to show what he could do.
Hudon was flying on the forecheck. He had an outstanding wrap-around chance that he couldn’t count. He showed what it takes to stay out of the Habs’ lounge, eating the veggie dip during the games.
Where Hudon has lost the confidence of the coaching staff, though, is in his defensive game. Again, Hudon did what he needed to. He took away a high-danger chance for the Flyers in the second period, covering for the pinching defender on an odd man rush and blocking the shot. You don’t get more committed than that. This was a strong night for Hudon and he needs it.
Hudon has to prove himself soon, though, because next year, getting a spot on this Habs team is going to be even harder when the prospects start vying for jobs. Hudon won’t fetch a solid return at the moment as his stock is low, having been sidelined, and it’s expected they would lose him on the waiver wire.
The time is now for this player, for Montreal, and perhaps even for the NHL. His story is starting to feel like Nikita Scherbak‘s — a top scorer in the AHL but just not finding a home in the NHL.
In this game, though, Hudon looked like an NHLer. Now he needs to build on that.
When anyone talks about Victor Mete these days, all they say is that he’s gone more than a season without a goal. That’s a shame. Mete is playing his best hockey of his young career at the moment. In fact, this was one of his best career games. He and Petry were the Habs’ best defenders on the night. He also had a chance to score — which, of course, did not go in.
Mete’s first pass up ice was the best on the team, quick and on the tape. That’s saying a lot, considering Petry is also excellent at this task. Mete’s also pinching in on the rush a lot these days, and he’s a real challenge for defenders when he does take it up ice with his upper-echelon speed.
The power play. Enough said on that this season.
The Canadiens were just a tired team overall, after spending all their energy on building an early second period lead of 16 shots to one. By the third period, there was nothing left after back-to-back night games, and that added up to a 5-2 loss.
It’s a long season. Sometimes there are no legs left to give the second effort that your emotional brain wants to give to the cause. It’s not worth getting upset with a Habs team that gives up a four-game run of wins. They have one more game before the all-star break, which is followed by their bye week. After the Wednesday night contest against the Arizona Coyotes at the Bell Centre, they won’t play again until Super Bowl weekend’s afternoon games in Montreal.
It’s a well deserved 10-day break for the Habs. If you would have been told that the Habs will be in the playoffs, and only one point out of second in the Atlantic Division at the all-star break before this season began, you would have been elated. So, on to the next one. If they win over the Coyotes, then all will be well as they head into some family time, and some trips to Mexico and beyond to get away from this winter. Then they come back, rested and ready to see if they can lock up the playoff spot in the last third of the season.
That would be a season of great recovery for a team expected to get much better in the next five years.
The NHL has ruled that Carey Price’s injury — one that has left him out of games but seems to be fine at the moment — isn’t significant enough to allow him a free pass to miss the All-Star game.
Price has what is described as an irritating lower-body injury. The NHL deems that a player must attend the game unless he is truly injured at the exact time of the game, which, since Price is regularly playing, is not the case now. The result is the Habs goalie has been suspended for one game. That game is February 2nd against the New Jersey Devils. Price isn’t allowed to be on the active roster, so the club will have to call up a goalie from Laval for the contest.
This is the right move for the Habs. It can simply be an Antti Niemi night, which is not an issue, while Price gets to rest instead of flying across the country to perhaps lose his rhythm and confidence, facing so much quality rubber. It’s almost impossible for a goalie to leave the all-star game feeling like he is any good at his craft. You certainly don’t want to mess with the confidence of a goalie who has a 951 save percentage in January.