Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers go to overtime
The Montreal Canadiens are on pace for a 97-point season, which historically has been good enough for a playoff spot in the new era of the three-point game. However, a drop to 95 points would be dicey and a drop to 93 points would not likely be enough. This means that in the final 30 games of the season, every two points is vital.
The Oilers were the opposition on Super Bowl Sunday, and Edmonton was equally desperate for results to keep their playoff hopes alive. In the end, however, the Habs emerged victorious with a 4-3 overtime win.
- The Habs’ power play at home this season is 31st and worst in the NHL, but that seems like it’s on the verge of changing. As usual, it’s a manpower thing. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is now on the first unit, and already you can see the tremendous dividends his presence is paying. The first two power plays for the Habs were excellent. Shea Weber scored early on a pass from Jonathan Drouin with the extra man. Here’s how it sets up, and it is all about options: instead of just Weber at the point — which is easy to read and handle if there is only one option — now it is also Kotkaniemi on the right side in the Habs’ attacking diamond. That means Drouin on the point with the option of Weber now taking 30-footers instead of 45- to 50-footers. Then, on the right-hand seam, it is Kotkaniemi also trying to fire one-timers with his left-handed shot to improve his angle. The 18-year-old took some outstanding shots but didn’t label them into the top corner, which would have worked, with the goalie having to move in a lateral manner. That makes Drouin the quarterback like he was in Tampa Bay when Steven Stamkos was injured. Drouin now has three excellent options: he can find Weber on the left, Kotkaniemi on the right or throw it at the net himself with the help down low waiting for screens and deflections. It’s simply a better power play because of options. Give a team too much to defend, and they can’t defend it. Give a team only one player to defend, like Weber, and they will figure you out easily. One should expect a better Habs power play now: manpower, positioning, options. Not that complicated, in truth.
- The Alex Galchenyuk trade has gotten a lot of attention, and deservedly so. The Max Pacioretty trade has gotten a lot of attention — also deservedly so. The trade that has gotten little attention and deserves much more is the Brett Kulak trade. The Habs’ third-pair defenceman is quietly turning into a steady addition. In the first period, Kulak had the hardest challenge in hockey, stopping Connor McDavid with a full head of steam on a rush. Kulak angled off the best skater in hockey with a brilliant play to thwart what could have been a high-quality chance. Kulak came to the Habs in the deal that saw Matt Taormina and Rinat Valiev go back to the Calgary Flames. Both those players will likely not be NHL regulars. In fact, it would be kind of shocking at this stage if they were. However, Kulak continues to impress. When you get a regular NHL player in exchange for AHL players, you have made one hell of a hockey trade. All three of general manager Marc Bergevin’s off-season moves are looking excellent this season, and even more with the passage of time. Bergevin had one horrendous 2017, but he redeemed himself significantly in 2018. He’s saying all the right things in 2019 as well.
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- Max Domi played outstanding hockey on the weekend, and it appeared that he was going to have no puck luck around the net with his myriad chances. Finally, early in the second period, he found a little good fortune. Domi tried a wraparound while falling and didn’t actually spin it toward the goal, but the puck went off the Oilers’ goalkeeper and ricocheted into the net. That is 17 goals on the season for Domi. His career high is an 18-goal season, which was during his rookie campaign. Domi has 29 games to go to tie his best with one easy goal. Domi is also just five points behind his best total of 52, again in his rookie campaign. That’s another easy mark to beat. What a terrific trade for Bergevin to strengthen the middle of the ice — the most important place to win a game.
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- Jonathan Drouin still has some things to learn about staying committed defensively when he is leading by one goal late in the game, but he has little to learn about how to do something beautiful and dramatic from an offensive standpoint. It is overtime and Drouin takes the puck from Victor Mete behind the Habs’ net. He skates 190 feet to the other goal without losing the puck then roofs it for the 4-3 game winner. It was a gorgeous goal from a player who can score some beauties. What a massive moment for the Habs: they needed this win a lot. To come off the break and not find a victory at home against middling opposition would have been a big disappointment. They get three points out of four, and all is right with the world again for Habs fans.
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- Jesperi Kotkaniemi earned two goals in two games on the weekend. This one was absolutely vital, as the Habs tied it at three in the third period when they were creating nothing for long stretches. Kotkaniemi picked up the pick at the side of the net and roofed a backhand shot from three feet. It was a goal scorer’s goal: he made the shot look easy, but it was a shot that most players fire into the pads or the crest of the goalie. Kotkaniemi put a shot in that was so perfect that it hit the underside of the net instead of the back. It was his eighth goal of the season and 25th point. Kotkaniemi has four goals in his last eight games after scoring four goals in his first 44 games. He was told to shoot more, and that advice was right. These totals for an 18-year-old are stellar in today’s era. The bonus is that he is very rarely a liability on defence, either. You’ve heard it said many times and you’re going to hear it many more: the kid is going to be a star.
- It was another game in which the Habs dominated five-on-five, yet it was also another game in which they were dominated by special teams. This time, it was the penalty kill that was horrific. The Habs allowed three power-play goals by the Oilers. All three looked familiar, as the Oilers sent it toward the goal and then flooded the area in tight beside Carey Price. The puck poked out the back door, and no one was there to cover; the goalie had absolutely no chance. The Habs’ penalty kill has been better than their power play, but the question has still been there this entire season: how good could this team be if they improve in this area to just an average level? The Habs don’t even have to be top 10 to make a significant difference in their overall fortunes. They only have to be not horrible. Their power play is 30th in the league. Their penalty kill is 22nd in the league. Improve to average and good things can happen for the Habs. Don’t improve, and there are going to be a lot of games that the Habs should win but lose thanks to poor special teams. They escaped this one, but they must improve in this area just the same.
- The Habs are on the hunt for a left-handed defender as the season heads to the trading deadline in late February. It’s a difficult moment for the general manager, but a moment he is thrilled to have. It’s only that the Habs have surprised so significantly that Bergevin wonders if he should add to the strength this season while sacrificing some strength in the future. A Twitter poll shows that fans would like the Habs to remain patient in their rebuild. It’s not a black-and-white moment. It’s a moment that is very much specific to the actual trade. There are four can’t-touch prospects: Alexander Romanov can be that left-sided, first-pair defender down the road, Ryan Poehling is a 200-foot centre, Nick Suzuki is an offensive force again this year in juniors and Josh Brook is one of the best defenders in all of junior hockey. All four of these players are expected to be impact NHLers. They should not be traded, but after that, all the prospects should be in the available trading pool. The first-rounder for the Habs next season should be available as well. If the Habs were to draft at the 20 position, that is not a sure thing at all. It is statistically only a 50-50 proposition to become a regular NHLer at that drafting spot. One can see a trade for a young left-side rearguard with some term on his contract in exchange for the Habs first-rounder, the Habs second-rounder, and one of the prospects ranked five through 10 — take your pick. This would strengthen the Habs in their only clear positional weakness. Mete is improving and doing well, but everything changes with a top pairing left-side defender to play with Weber. The Habs would move from being unlikely to beat the Leafs or Bruins in a playoff series to possibly being able to do so, especially with Price playing as he is. It is difficult not to envision scenarios that could improve the Habs as soon as now. Bergevin could make the trade without ruining the prospect pool, and the receiving team would get a solid return as well. Expect it to be a defender with some contract, not a rental. Expect Bergevin to give up three pieces, but not the top four prospects.
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- It appears Paul Byron has suffered another serious injury in what is a frustrating season for him. Late in the second period, Byron was hit into the boards. He dropped his gloves and stick immediately and went to the Habs’ dressing room. It looked like an injury to his shoulder, arm or wrist on the left side. The way he left the ice, banging the glass behind the Habs bench in anger with his healthy right side, is a good indication from the player that he knows he’s going to miss some serious time.
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