The four biggest tests in a row of the season concluded with the Habs picking up three of a possible eight points.
The best effort was a dominating performance against the Winnipeg Jets. After that, three games where the Habs managed only an overtime loss, but the club also showed that they can compete with anyone — except one period against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Now, we know where they are. The Habs are not upper echelon, but they are not far from it.
GM Marc Bergevin is in an interesting spot. Where the Habs are in the playoff chase will decide what Bergevin does as the trading deadline approaches. The Florida Panthers were the opposition as the road trip concluded on a Sunday night.
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- The legs were not there in the first period, and the head was happy to follow as it always is, but one player stood out early. Jesperi Kotkaniemi showed a skill-set that one would wonder if he had at the NHL level. It is easy to be a perimeter player in this league when you aren’t carrying much muscle on your frame, but Kotkaniemi refuses to be that. A first-period shift saw Brendan Gallagher on with Kotkaniemi for a rare occasion. The 18-year-old almost scored on the Gallagher rebound when he was getting whacked from behind, but still managed to get a stick on a shot from four feet that somehow managed to go wide even though it got past James Reimer. It’s not a big moment in the game, but it is a big moment to see what a young player is prepared to do to make a difference, and once again, Kotkaniemi shows that he has the goods necessary to be an outstanding NHL first-line centre in two-three years. He is not a perimeter player. This is absolutely vital if you are expecting Kotkaniemi to have big point totals as an NHLer. You have to be effective when you are in tight, getting slashed and cross-checked. Kotkaniemi will be.
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- This season has been a revelation of a coaching staff that has changed the way they view the game and teach the game. The Habs play 200-foot hockey of the new era as well as any team in the game. The defenders are given free rein to take off offensively if they see the opportunity. Second period and the Habs complete the two-goal comeback with Mike Reilly joining the rush to feed Max Domi for his second goal of the game, upping his total to 19 on the season. Reilly is one of at least four defenders on the team who can add to the offensive input, even the ones who can’t regularly are moving forward trying to learn. Take Brett Kulak who scored but it was called back against Tampa. He was right in the wheelhouse of the net looking for a goal. The way the Habs are playing is so hard to defend because the down low spot in the zone is flooded offensively and for the defensive team their assignments become discombobulated. Case in point: you have a defending winger who thinks he only has to worry about the half wall at the point, but suddenly he has to now dig down low and change the assignment. The Habs are outstanding at this new-age hockey, and it is one of the reasons that this team without a lot of upper echelon stars is able to be one of the best five-on-five teams in hockey. They shouldn’t be one of the top teams five on five but they are, and that’s due to outstanding system-wide coaching that the players have embraced extremely well.
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- The Habs are in a desperate battle to win a playoff spot, but that goaltending performance in the first period was not what they needed. Antti Niemi was at fault in the first period. Firstly, Alexander Barkov‘s in-tight shot may not look like an error at first glance, but all Niemi has to do there is what is expected of a goalie at that moment and that’s keep the pads on the ice and cover off the bottom half. Instead, Niemi lifts his left leg, essentially providing a wide-open path for Barkov to slide it in as he does. Five minutes later, and Niemi is worse as he lets in a 40-foot floater from Denis Malgin. It looked more like a knuckleball than a fastball and Niemi waved at it. A third goal allowed was a deflection and Niemi got the hook after it for Carey Price. Niemi’s line was three goals allowed on nine shots.
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- There’s a lot of disappointment that the Habs fell 6-3 to a Florida team that won’t make the playoffs again this season, but they just didn’t have any legs by the end of it. They had no energy. They were gasping for air at the end of their shifts. They didn’t have the jump to manage anything on the forecheck. This is why they play 82 games in a season: Because some nights, it will be the other team that comes in with no energy having played the night before. With that said, the Habs are holding on to a playoff spot by one point right now, and they need to get it going soon. The fourth line didn’t improve over the week despite the moves by the GM, as Nate Thompson and Dale Weise have been unable to improve that area. It will come down to the final weekend for these Canadiens whether they get to keep playing in mid-April. On the one hand, that is more than anyone expected this season. On the other hand, to get this close only to fail to make the playoffs would be heartbreaking for the millions of fans who live and die with their every shift.
- The top four prospects on the Habs are in a class above the rest: Alexander Romanov, Ryan Poehling, Josh Brook, and Nick Suzuki are all expected to be impact players at the NHL level. The next prospects are both Finnish and they are both playing outstanding hockey at the moment. In his last game, Jesse Ylonen scored two goals and one assist. His game is perfect for the new NHL as he is able to execute outstanding moves and a wicked shot at high-speed. Ylonen is a very strong skater, and it is hard to also imagine that he is not an NHLer after he establishes himself. Joni Ikonen is the other Finn. He has suffered through two seasons of injury grief, but he is back now and playing better than he has since before draft day. Ikonen has eight points in 11 games since returning from injury. One other prospect stands out as Cayden Primeau is looking like a remarkable steal from the seventh round. He is backstopping Northeastern up the ladder closing in on top-ten status in NCAA hockey. Primeau ha his 17th win of the season last night and he has improved his save percentage to a remarkable 926. Expectations are that he will not only be up for the Mike Richter Award as college hockey’s best goalie, but also a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as best player overall. The prospect pool has not been this good for the Habs in 25 years. It will be interesting to see what it produces in the end. The future is very bright.