Call of the Wilde: Tampa Bay Lightning shut out the Montreal Canadiens
It was the final of four big tests over nine days for the Montreal Canadiens. A fateful nine days for the general manager to assess whether his team has the goods to compete with the best in the NHL. Nine days for Marc Bergevin to decide whether to load up, or be patient and wait for the next wave of talent. The final test of the four would be the toughest — the best team in hockey: the Tampa Bay Lighting in their own arena.
- The Lightning are the NHL’s best, so when Phillip Danault drives the play along with Brendan Gallagher and Jonathan Drouin, you have an impressive feat in this game. Danault has been the season’s revelation as a complete hockey player competing against the best at an extremely high level. Danault can face the best centres and hold his own at both ends of the ice. He has shut down some great players while having the best offensive season of his career. It was thought that Danault had a limited upside and would be stuck at a third-line level. But the truth is if he can be a matchup centre in a game this fast-paced against the best players, there is no reason he can’t be part of great things, the best of things. Impressive as well is that Danault is so good at both ends of the ice; he creates a line driving the play when Drouin is on the ice. That’s not easy as Drouin doesn’t work around his own net nearly as hard as he works near the opponent’s net. What a trade! To get such a complete hockey player and a second-round draft choice for Dale Weise and Thomas Fleischmann. It does not seem possible to rob someone this thoroughly like GM Marc Bergevin did to Chicago.
- There were very few who didn’t compete at a high level in Tampa Bay for two periods. Jeff Petry had big speed. Mike Reilly worked harder than you will usually see. Andrew Shaw fought for every inch. Jesperi Kotkaniemi — against the best team in the world right now — didn’t look out of place at 18 years of age. Shea Weber made hundreds of smart decisions. Victor Mete was comfortable as usual. Carey Price is still doing his 950 show for nearly two months. Max Domi was fired up and not backing down from anyone. Tomas Tatar was creative and determined. Brett Kulak pinching in and scoring, even though it was called back. Nate Thompson with a late second-period shift that was so good that it was clear why they wanted him. Then the third period happened. Let’s throw away that period and assess 11 of the 12 periods in this stretch against four of hockey’s best teams. The Habs play five-man, progressive, full-sheet hockey very well: all five think offence and all five think defence. The Habs don’t have to feel inferior to anyone this year. They destroyed Winnipeg. They competed well losing in OT to Toronto. They played well in Nashville. The Lightning have been blowing out their opposition. They win with ease most nights. They just embarrassed Dallas badly winning 6-0; the game was over late in the first period. Don’t get bogged down in the score or the third period after it was essentially settled. The Habs let down in the third period after the two quick goals, but that can happen when momentum is a part of the equation. Four huge games and they competed with everyone, though obviously fell just short if you are counting only three points out of eight, instead of watching how the sheet was tilted mostly throughout the four games. The sheet was tilted just fine. They’re not better than the Tampas and Torontos but they’re not so far away either.
WATCH: Call of the Wilde — Look ahead to major games
- This drum has been beaten all season long by hockey people in the know, but why is Nicolas Deslauriers in the lineup night after night? First period and Deslauriers had the puck along the left boards in the neutral zone. He was leading the rush, but two seconds later he was behind the rush. He was that slow. It was remarkable to watch the entire play pass him by while he looked like he was skating in slush. The coaching staff and management keep preaching about how speed is the key to success in the NHL right now, yet the organization keeps putting out a 1970s player. It is not necessary to have a police officer anymore. Every 10 games he has to step up for someone and sure, at that moment, it seems a good thing to have him on the ice to protect and enforce. However, all of the other times, the Habs are suffering. They have two good hockey players who can be on the ice for the Habs who fit into their style of play. Matthew Peca is a speed player. He does not have much finish around the goal, but he can keep up to the play. He can fit into this style. Charles Hudon has defensive liabilities but he also brings more game than Deslauriers. You can argue “at least Deslauriers is good defensively,” but he is not. The fourth line is often hemmed into its own zone. It does not have to be this way. It’s a mystery. The coaching staff has had an amazing year. They have totally adapted to the changing game. They play a five-man, offensive game with the rearguards helping on the attack, and at the same time, the forwards playing back to allow the pinch-ins to work. The coaching staff is so impressive this year, except the power play, of course. Yet here we are with this bizarre manpower choice the entire season. It’s difficult to see what it is going to take to change this. Perhaps it will be a horrible moment that Deslauriers is caught out that costs the team a lot. No one wants it to come to that, but often that is how it works. Sometimes the most intelligent can’t see the forest through the trees. That is what we have here in Deslauriers.
WATCH: Call of the Wilde — The Habs are back in action
- A mention of the turnover by Jonathan Drouin is in order again. There’s a defensive line change early third period and an awareness of that has to be made that a turnover at that moment will be possibly catastrophic. Drouin telegraphed his pass the entire way in the neutral zone. He looked at his target Gallagher the entire time. You simply can’t get away with that at this level. You have to try to be duplicitous. Drouin’s giveaway leads to the puck in the net two seconds later, and just like that it is 2-0 and this game is over. A lot of hard work and great desire leads to great disappointment in a blink.
The Habs have competed with Toronto, Winnipeg and Nashville this week. There is no evidence that they are inferior to these teams. If they play solid hockey to the deadline, a more serious trade to upgrade the roster significantly should be expected. The Habs drive play as well as most upper-echelon teams.
The goalie Carey Price is hot playing with a 0.953 save percentage for two months. The power play is the team’s weakness but fewer power plays are called in post-season. So there is little missing but some more blueline strength as a first pair defender needs to supply some offence as well. Also, GM Marc Bergevin should be hunting for a right-handed shot for the power play as Claude Julien seems to insist on one and Joel Armia with his zero power play goals in his entire career isn’t the answer.
The argument could be made that no one is beating Tampa Bay. However, if only one team is clearly superior, that’s not enough. Tampa can have injuries, or the goalie may not perform for whatever reason like the way Nashville’s Pekka Rinne lost his way at the worst possible time last season. A GM can’t just throw in a towel over one team. Sports are too fickle for that.
The real travesty would be to finish with 94 points out of the playoffs. Drafting 15th and not making the playoffs is a horrendous recipe. The idea here to ensure a playoff berth is to trade the Habs first-rounder this year for a player who has some term on his contract, or you can guarantee term: a strong player at either first-pair defence or a right-handed shot, top-six winger.
The clap back here might be that the Habs shouldn’t give up a first-rounder. However, they are 10th in the league. That’s the 21st pick overall. This is a spot historically that has a 50 per cent chance to land as a regular NHLer. This spot is far away from being a lock. Nikita Scherbak failing is not rare. It is just as common as succeeding after the 20th pick. So get a player in the top half of the lineup that’s a sure thing. The rebuilding team who made the trade with the Habs would be pleased too. Throw in a second-round pick to get it done. Throw in a relatively strong prospect as well. Throw in Cayden Primeau if they want a goalie.
Imagine this scenario: if you could trade for and guarantee signing the Senators free agent Mark Stone. Exchange Stone for a first-round pick, a second-round pick, someone like Jesse Ylonen, then this is a golden trade. Ottawa doesn’t have money for Stone. They are rebuilding. He is not signing there. The Sens get three assets for a player leaving anyway which makes them look good in that deal. The Habs get a strong player. Having Stone on the roster for the stretch drive means the Habs are in a different zone entirely — now and tomorrow.
The Habs need to make a contract-term, guaranteed trade. This is not a rental. Never should a trade be a rental unless the GM is giving up little like what Bergevin did to acquire Nate Thompson, or one more player gives you the odds-on-chance to win the Stanley Cup.
The Habs play 5-on-5 hockey in the top five in the league. They should be given a chance to do something better than just making the playoffs. The players have earned a deadline-deal surprise. Bergevin has the assets to do this without even hurting the future. He should do it. The time is now.
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