A Saturday night battle televised coast to coast that no one expected: up for grabs was second place in the Atlantic Division. The Montreal Canadiens, pencilled in just ahead of Ottawa in 7th place in September, playing the Toronto Maple Leafs, pencilled in just behind Tampa Bay in 2nd place in September. The winner would have temporary bragging rights in February. For the Habs, after their dominating win over the Winnipeg Jets, this was another statement game — a night to tell the hockey world that they belong with the NHL elite. For the Leafs, a chance to reassert themselves as the boss right now in this almost century-old rivalry.
- What a return for Andrew Shaw to the Habs lineup. His first game after missing 15 contests with a neck injury and he scores on his first shift before the first minute expired. Third period and it’s Shaw with a deft passing play with Max Domi to set up Brendan Gallagher as the Habs took the lead 3-2 with a rare power-play goal. Shaw has had a lot of health issues as a Canadiens player, so he has taken a lot of heat, but he has put together good numbers. This season, Shaw has 26 points in 37 games. His goal was typical Shaw. He worked hard to get into a dangerous position in front of the net, then tipped the waist-high shot. Shaw can be used as a winger or a centre in a pinch. He’s been used to win draws when needed. The issue is that the Habs gave up two second-round draft choices for Shaw, and it became know that Trevor Timmins would have hunted blue liner Samuel Girard, who is a great player, and Alex Debrincat who is approaching 30 goals for the Blackhawks. Of course, there are no guarantees that it would have shaken down exactly that way with Timmins landing these two. Even if it did, that’s not Andrew Shaw’s fault. He has done his part when healthy.
WATCH: The Habs face their toughest challenge of the season yet with upcoming games against three of the top ten NHL teams
- It was a high-octane night at the Bell Centre. Every single player on the Habs had more time and space taken away from them than they have suffered this season. The game was so fast moving that each and every player had to know his course of action before he even received the puck. The game was that fast. The Leafs pinched their defenders at every chance. They brought an extra player to push the harder Habs’ reaction every single time. So with all of that as a backdrop, it was a night to be extremely impressed with Jordie Benn and Brett Kulak who most people probably didn’t think could bring it at that level. When you can find the answers as a third pair partnership at that pace of a game, then you have as a GM and coach, better defenders than you probably thought that you had. The Habs were able to stay very organized on a night that they could have easily broken down overall. It wouldn’t have surprised one bit to see Benn not have enough time throwing it away blindly. It would have been expected to see Mike Reilly not commit to a moment behind the net that he was about to get fierce pressure put upon him by an onrushing forechecker, and then a second forechecker right behind him. The Habs defence against this ferocious attack held up. It is easy to see why the Leafs score in bunches. They bring so much offensive talent. Credit to all the defenders. Jeff Petry was skating smoothly as usual. Victor Mete made the right decisions. Shea Weber made an error losing his man on the first goal, but he also used his head which is his best weapon, despite most people assuming it’s a booming shot or his large frame. Bottom line, the defence held up. That bodes well for the future for this team. The test that they got in this one is the best test that they will get in the NHL.
- Max Domi showed that he’s got the motor to be involved in the best games with the best players. He was flying through the neutral zone creating space for himself and backing up defenders. It was his pace to win the zone in the third period that led to the Habs taking the lead. You have to scare your opponent about getting turnstiled or that isn’t going to happen. This is Domi at his best. This was a moment to love the trade. To get a player who was handling himself on the defensive side of the puck, then bring that speed on offence, and that grit as a fiery competitor who won’t back down is a good hockey trade. Domi with his two points solidified his lead atop the scoring race for the club just ahead of Jonathan Drouin. When you improve year to year, this is what you see. The top two players last year in scoring: one wasn’t there, and the other might as well have not been there playing out of position. Excellent work by the GM to change this team: their attitude and their talent level.
- A reminder to you all that the fourth line of the Habs next season — or soon after — will have the arrival of highly touted prospects Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki to go with a healthy Paul Byron. It’s a needed reminder because it was a night where you could see that you need everyone to be successful. It is necessary to have 19 guys every night to win a title and all 19 have to have the ability to play the game at the highest level or they get exposed by the good teams like the Maple Leafs. Even one player on a fourth line who isn’t of the same quality is enough to expose the other two, who together as a trio expose everyone else down the line. The difference between greatness and falling short is that paper-thin a margin. In the first period, the Habs put out their fourth line for two quick shifts early. The result was two quick goals for Toronto. Nicolas Deslauriers, Michael Chaput and Matthew Peca were all minus two by the five-minute mark. Deslauriers was particularly exposed and head coach Claude Julien knew it as he only used him for three shifts in the first period for 1:44 total ice time. You cannot have any passengers at this level. You have to bring speed and skill or you get time and space taken away — the game is just too fast for you. However, the view of the near horizon is a beautiful profile of highly talented players to come. Suzuki will be an NHLer. Poehling will be an NHLer. When they are, then whoever is playing on that fourth line — if it is not them — will be bringing more game than what was brought on Saturday night. That’s what the great teams have — everyone, every role, every skill, and every answer.
WATCH: The Habs are back in action
- For the first time this year, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who had one of the best VO2 scores at the NHL draft combine, was gasping for breath. This game was that fast. Kotkaniemi got the best test of his young career in facing these Leafs. He tried his best to keep up with this high-speed game, and maybe for the first time, you saw that he was challenged. Not to say that he won’t get there. In fact, to see that he suffered only occasionally is a testament that he will get there. But he did suffer. He did find, at times, that it was simply an incredibly rapid game. It’s amazing that he is competing at this level at 18. This was one of those nights to actually see, even in the difficulty at times, that being in Montreal in the NHL is better for his experience. There’s no way he gets this test in Finland or Laval. This type of learning curve can only be achieved against the best in the fastest game that one can be in — facing a Leafs team that was bringing intense pressure.
- The Habs made a trade Saturday that the fans are excited about because of the return of Dale Weise to Montreal, but it’s really about upgrading the defence for a playoff run. GM Marc Bergevin has often said that he likes a lot of depth on defence, but he simply does not have any. You make the playoffs and you better have at least eight defenders that you can rely on, and having 10 isn’t a bad idea either. Injuries, the playoffs, and defencemen go together like Shea Weber and booming slap shots. You can’t go into the playoffs with Karl Alzner as your seventh man. It won’t work. Bergevin realized this season that he simply could not rely on David Schlemko to get through a hard rain, nevermind a gruelling playoff run. Schlemko is shipped out before he asks for lifetime medical insurance along with Bryon Froese. In return, the Habs get a more reliable rearguard and the return of the Dutch Gretzky Weise. Christian Folin played about a third of the season for the Flyers this year. He’s a veteran who plays on the right side. He provides very little offence from the back end, but he’s steady and he doesn’t cheat the effort. The deal also seems to be an indicator that something is seriously wrong with Noah Juulsen, though the Habs will not comment on his long absence, except to say that it is an upper-body injury. Juulsen is also a right side rearguard and the deal to acquire Folin seems to indicate that Juulsen’s return could be in the longer future, instead of soon. Folin is 28 years of age, so this is not a prospect. He’s a player who can give you minutes now. In fact, he was flown to Montreal while the club sent down Alzner. Weise was also sent from one AHL team in Lehigh Valley to another in Laval. One should expect that he gets called up when the team suffers from injuries. Paul Byron was put on the injured reserve on Saturday indicating the day-to-day injury may have some more days in it. Global Montreal’s Call Of The Wilde reported earlier this week that Bergevin would make one or two deals to upgrade his blue line. He now has one more to go. The club’s reset is going quicker than previously anticipated. Now is not the time to ruin a possible playoff run by not having some reliable fill-ins.
- Speaking of the future, one of the big four prospects Ryan Poehling was stellar in a win over Colorado College on Friday night. Poehling scored once and added an assist as the number one team in the country Saint Cloud State won in overtime. Poehling got the winner as he was parked at the side of the net to one-time the puck home. Poehling was a dominant force in the third period when the game was on the line dangling at will it seemed. Poehling should make a strong push to earn a spot on the team next season. First, they have to sign him. If all goes well, Poehling can win a U.S. national championship and then join the Habs for the end of the NHL regular season and the playoffs. As I said… if all goes well.