Pittsburgh, Montreal, Columbus and Carolina — four teams that are separated by three points. Three will make the playoffs and one will not.
Every night is vital for the Canadiens. If the Habs were in the west, they would basically be a lock, as that conference is so weak this year. However, they are in the east, where it appears it is going to take a gigantic 97 points to get to the playoffs this year.
The Philadelphia Flyers are entertaining slim hopes of a playoff spot themselves, and they knew they could not afford a loss to a team that they are chasing. However, Montreal dominated the Flyers on Thursday night, notching a 5-1 victory over Philadelphia.
- Jesperi Kotkaniemi dropped his knee to the ice to get better leverage on the pass from Paul Byron, and he drilled it home perfectly past Carter Hart. It was the second goal for the Habs, as they chased the rookie Flyers goalie early. Kotkaniemi is really starting to shoot more, and the results are excellent. In his rookie season, Kotkaniemi now has 11 goals on the season. He has 30 points on the season in 61 games. He is on his way to a 40-point rookie season at the age of 18, which puts him in the same class as many of the great hockey players of the last 20 years. What a remarkable draft choice this player is for the Habs. Wait until he puts 25 pounds on his thin frame — what a difference that will make. He already wins puck battles quite well for a player who clearly gets pushed off the puck only because he is so much lighter. He understands positioning when he battles. You can see that already. He rolls off the battle well, too. All that he lacks is strength. In about three years, when a bigger Kotkaniemi comes out of the corner with the puck all the time then gets a chance to pass it, expect that there will be even more stunningly good results and many more points. He is the No. 1 centre the Habs have been looking for.
- Twenty-four. Twenty-five. Twenty-six. The first hat trick in the career of Brendan Gallagher. It seems impossible, considering his consistent scoring year after year. It seems impossible, considering he has had 20-goal seasons and a 30-goal season. But there it was — against the Flyers after only 23 minutes of hockey, Gallagher got his first hat trick since he was a Vancouver Giants forward in the Western Hockey League. Gallagher is on his way to a second straight 30-goal campaign, as he only needs four goals with a quarter of the season remaining. The remarkable thing is that Gallagher was the leading goal scorer last year and the leader this year, and he doesn’t even get any power-play time. He also doesn’t have a high average minutes total game per game. Amazing, really, all things considered.
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- The Habs are completely healthy so what that means is speed, speed, speed. The chafe that plays on the fourth line doesn’t get a chance to get on the ice when Byron is healthy, when Andrew Shaw is healthy. Gone is Nicolas Deslauriers, who just can’t keep up with this lightning-fast team when they have their legs. Head coach Claude Julien put forth a formidable lineup of forwards for this one. With everyone available, Julien pushed Byron up to the third line to play with Kotkaniemi as his centre and Joel Armia on the other side. That meant that the fourth line was as talented as the fourth line has been the entire season. It was Nate Thompson, coming off a game where he was the first line centre in Phillip Danault’s absence, with Artturi Lehkonen, and Matthew Peca on the other side. That’s a lot of talent among the 12 Habs forwards. The only thing among those 12 that the club doesn’t have is a truly elite game-breaker. There is no Steven Stamkos or Auston Matthews in the bunch, but there is a lot of consistent, speedy and hard-working talent. Top to bottom, 12 forwards to rival almost any team in the league.
- With all of the goals for the Habs in this one, two other players hit milestones. Max Domi, in his rookie season, scored 18 goals for 52 points. Jump ahead three years to his first with the Habs, and Domi is already breaking his record for goals and points with a quarter of the season remaining. He has 20 goals and 33 assists for 53 points. Talk about getting an immediate return on your investment, if you are the GM, as Domi immediately turns into the player that made him the 12th choice overall in the 2013 draft with a breakout season. And speaking of the GM hitting the mark on his trades, the other milestone of the game came from another just-acquired player. The five-nothing goal by Tomas Tatar was the fifth time in his career that he has hit the 20-goal plateau. Tatar’s best total was six seasons ago when he had 29 on the season. He is on pace for 28 goals. He will have to get going at a slightly better clip to get his first 30-goal campaign. But what a remarkable return for the GM on these two players, if you want to find a couple reasons out of the many why the Habs finished with 71 points last year and are on pace to 99 this year.
- Carey Price didn’t have to do much in this one, but he was sharp when the quality Flyers shots did come. Price is working his way up the save percentage ranks, where he was almost last in the league after 45 days of the season. Price now has a 918 mark, which is good enough for 11th in the NHL. Price has a 954 mark in the last 45 days. These are remarkable totals and one of the main reasons that the Habs are fighting for a playoff spot. The offence has not produced at the same pace as it did in the first two months of the season. Thankfully, for the Habs, Price has elevated his game substantially.
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- None to speak of, as it was a close-to-flawless performance for the Habs.
- The trading deadline is Monday afternoon. The Habs will be in New Jersey to face the Devils right after the deadline passes. It will be interesting to see how the roster changes leading up to that day. GM Marc Bergevin has said that he will not sacrifice youth for a short-term fix. He likes to make real hockey trades. He also likes to be busy at the deadline. All of this adds up to the Habs making a real hockey trade for a player who either does not cost much or a player who costs a lot but has term in his contract. The first option is acquiring a player who does not cost much, which will likely be a depth defenceman that would be acquired for a fourth-round draft choice or something of that nature. The second option is to improve the roster for the long term, and that is why it has been rumoured that the Habs are in on the Senators’ Matt Duchene, who has been left out of the Ottawa lineup as the deadline approaches. It is not likely that Bergevin wins the Duchene sweepstakes. It is more likely that Duchene becomes a Nashville Predators centre, as their GM, David Poile, still sees that he is not strong enough up the middle to win the cup. The Habs are focused on the long term more than other teams, who feel closer now to the ultimate prize, so an offer from Nashville is likely to be stronger than an offer from Montreal. The Habs have been rumoured to be picking up a lot of different players in the last few weeks, as they have climbed up the NHL ladder; it is only natural. The Habs have been watching the Anaheim Ducks closely with both their GM and scouts, but Cam Fowler does not seem to be available at last report. There are many solid players available this year at the deadline, but the issue is that it is all being held up by the Senators, who have yet to make a decision on three different unrestricted free agents. The dominoes will all start falling when we see where Duchene lands. It promises to be one of the more exciting trading deadlines in recent memory.