The Montreal Canadiens’ 10-day break ended on Saturday afternoon with the first of back-to-back games at the Bell Centre on Super Bowl weekend.
The Habs started with a loss to the New Jersey Devils, who came to Montreal with four losses of their own in their last five. The Canadiens follow that up on Sunday with the Oilers who are struggling.
With 31 games to go, the Habs find themselves in an excellent spot to make the playoffs. The post-season is within reach but the wins must keep coming.
- Jesperi Kotkaniemi enjoyed the break. You wondered if the grind of every two nights was wearing him down just a little. It’s hard to know the answer but it is easy to see that the rest did him good. Kotkaniemi was absolutely flying. He scored the game’s first goal on a sweet wrist shot, then a couple shifts later, he dominated and almost scored again. The all-Finnish line was flying. Joel Armia almost scored on a wrap-around in the first period and Artturi Lehkonen provided the intelligent support and puck battling to aid the cause. It’s easy to see this Finnish line becoming a real thing if given the chance. Claude Julien likes to rotate his lines a lot, so it’s unlikely they’ll be together long, but it sure was a treat to watch. Kotkaniemi is only 18 and he is already putting together dominating shifts at the NHL level. That is stunning. An 18-year-old is playing centre for the Montreal Canadiens with a 200-foot game. He is developing offensively by leaps and bounds. and has yet to fill out his physical form while dominating at the NHL level. It seems difficult to believe, but it is actually happening.
- Jeff Petry had another stellar game. It is simply amazing how much he is enjoying being on the second pair for the Habs. He is oozing with confidence. He feels free. Second period and Petry owned the puck in the offensive zone. He danced along the blue line. He took shots and then recovered those shots. He read the play perfectly all afternoon. He also took the smart point shot with not a lot on it, but easy to deflect which led to the Habs 2-1 goal by Phillip Danault. There was a long period late last season where Petry was struggling but it’s very important to not make too much of what a veteran wasn’t doing at the end of a lousy season on a lousy hockey team. A veteran has powered down for the rest of the campaign. He doesn’t need to waste his energy proving anything to anyone. A veteran is already thinking about next season and he is saving his body for games that matter. Petry has returned this season to his very best. He’s the perfect second pair defender on the right side behind the perfect first pair defender Shea Weber on the right side. The Habs’ right side is set and should serve them well for a long time.
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- Max Domi was showing the best of his stick skills and vision against the Devils. It didn’t go right during the final touch, but the lead-up was outstanding on many occasions. Domi could have scored two goals and set up another three with perfect puck luck. That he counted nothing was about as bad as his puck luck can get. During one shift late in the second period, he was in the right place repeatedly and a goal seemed certain, but no one could find the final moment of brilliance. Domi continues to have a breakout season as the trade looks outstanding. He’s become a force at centre, though not the best 200-foot player, of course. Domi could stand to shoot more. He needs to develop that instinct to realize in certain moments that his shot is the best chance to score, rather than feeding it to someone in a less advantageous position.
- It was another game of not really noticing Jordie Benn and Brett Kulak. They were extremely quiet and that is perfect. Recently, Jordie Benn has been adding some offensive flair, but what you are really looking for is a lot of simple exits and easy outs. They provided all afternoon. The second period saw the Habs outshoot the Devils 18-4 and that’s with the Devils having a five-on-three power play. The Habs dominated and the partnership of Benn-Kulak was a part of that domination. It’s another one of those quietly well-done trades by GM Marc Bergevin. He traded away AHL talent for NHL talent. Sure, Kulak isn’t going to alter the universe, but he’s been an excellent addition to a team that very much needed some steady support on the third pair.
- Victor Mete continues to grow as a player. He is getting comfortable joining the rush and is picking good moments to try to get his first goal in the NHL. One also has to remember that Mete is getting a lot of ice time considering his partner is Weber, and that also means he is getting the hardest matchups too. This is a big challenge and Mete is passing the test. He’s a good partner for Weber: he possesses the characteristics that Weber doesn’t have and vice-versa. If there is a moment when some amazing speed is required to catch a player up ice and Weber can’t do that job, Mete certainly can. If there is a moment in front of the net that Mete can’t handle physically, then Weber is there to offer that support. It’s the right type of mix and Mete has handled it well. It’s demanding to stay mentally strong on the back end, making difficult choices when you play a lot of minutes. Benn couldn’t do it. He needed the 5-6 role to succeed. So credit to the sophomore for figuring all of this out.
- It’s hard to find goats these days on the Habs. There aren’t any players that are standing out in a big way as passengers. There aren’t many plays that stand out as horrible and costing the club. This was a tight game because the Habs just could not find the net with a myriad of chances when they dominated. It should not have been a difficult scoreline, but the Habs just couldn’t finish. When the Devils’ Nico Hischier tied it at 2, it should have already been 5-1. With all of that said, one has to point out one goat-like moment. When Hischier picked up the loose puck — just before that — Jonathan Drouin was right there, but he peeled off to go up ice and receive a pass when the Habs didn’t have control of the puck yet. The score was 2-1, and the game was in the balance and there was not much time left. Drouin cannot be thinking about peeling off to get an offensive chance for a 3-1 scoreline. He has to be protecting the 2-1 scoreline and staying with Hischier just in case he picks up that loose puck. It has to be an instinct to protect the lead. It isn’t that Drouin failed at his attempt, which is one thing. It was that he didn’t make an attempt, which is another thing entirely. He has to finally get the discipline to be trying to do the right thing with the game on the line. That was the costly mistake as the Devils won it in overtime 3-2.
- It’s been a long time since the prospect pool was so rich for the Habs. Let’s call their best the big four with all four prospects having a high ceiling of possibility. Ryan Poehling, Alexander Romanov, Nick Suzuki, and Josh Brook continue to play outstanding hockey this season and all four could vie for spots on the Habs roster as soon as next year. So far this weekend, the one to shine is Poehling. The former first-round draft pick put on a show for top-ranked Saint Cloud State as he had a four-point game in the Huskies 5-1 win over Miami of Ohio. Poehling had two goals and two assists to move back to a point-per-game pace for the number one team in the U.S. Poehling has played in 23 games for Saint Cloud with five goals and 18 assists for 23 points. Poehling also was the MVP of the world junior championships in Vancouver and Victoria, helping the Americans to win a silver medal. He has continued to improve his play every season. Despite the fact that he can count points in the tough environment of college hockey, his greatest strength is a 200-foot game like Phillip Danault. It’s remarkable to see how quickly the Habs fixed their biggest hole in two short seasons. What was a dearth of talent has potentially turned into Kotkaniemi, Domi, Danault, and Poehling. That’s a formidable four down the middle.
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