The Montreal Canadiens were road warriors for most of the season, but in the last two weeks, the club has had nothing but road woes.
The Habs had five straight losses while away from the friendly Bell Centre as they headed into their game against the Red Wings in Detroit. It was such an important game for Montreal, as both Carolina and Pittsburgh were only one point back of Montreal heading into the night’s contests.
In the end, Montreal beat the Red Wings handily, notching an 8-1 victory.
- Head coach Claude Julien was looking to change it up after a horrific effort in New Jersey on Monday night. He changed his roster in two spots, with Christian Folin replacing Mike Reilly and Matthew Peca losing his spot to Dale Weise. In the first period, the line that dominated was Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia and Paul Byron. Byron seems to be one of those players who is able to turn whichever line he is on into a good line. The same can be said of Brendan Gallagher, who doesn’t get enough respect for making players around him better. Byron set the pace early by bringing big speed in the first 10 minutes. Of the change Julien made, Folin was more impressive than Weise. Folin is not flashy at all, but he makes strong decisions and keeps his position well. He will definitely get another game with a solid effort like this contest.
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- Tomas Tatar just keeps on going. What an amazing hockey player the Montreal Canadiens picked up as a throw-in in the Max Pacioretty deal. Tatar has had four goals in his last five games and six goals in his last nine games. The goal he got in this game was delightful. Jordie Benn did the old alley-oop pass just under the scoreboard and landing the long bomb into the offensive zone, where Tatar skated under it. He then fought off his checker, who was hooking and holding him the entire way, yet still found a way to make a highly skilled move to embarrass Jimmy Howard. Tatar now has 22 goals on the season as he tries to eclipse his career best of 29 goals and capture his first milestone 30.
- Andrew Shaw is putting good numbers together this year despite a serious neck injury. Shaw had a vital 2-0 goal early in the second period to give him 14 goals on the season. He later counted another on a crisp pass from Max Domi for 15 on the season. Shaw then counted, with only minutes remaining, for 16 on the season and the first hat trick of his career. That’s 16 goals in 45 games. If Shaw could have stayed healthy all season, he perhaps would have closed in on an impressive 30-goal campaign. All of Shaw’s goals were typical for him: he was just outside the crease on all three. He is never scoring with bullet-like wrist shots from 30 feet; he’s usually scoring from just outside the crease, which was the case again this time. It’s amazing how many goals are scored from in tight, yet it is even more amazing that all the NHL players know this, yet only 30 per cent of them will ever be seen near the crease. The punishment to the body that a player takes every time he is in the dirty area makes it not worth it, in his mind, even though Gallagher can tell you the reward is everything. Shaw can tell you the same thing. They are both small players who play big, proving it is not the size of the body that is the key to getting to the crease, it is the size of the heart.
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- The Habs continued along a solid offensive road midway through the second period. The path to a second consecutive 30-goal season also continued for Brendan Gallagher. The worry was that Gallagher would not be able to score anymore after he suffered a break to his hand on a Shea Weber slapshot that caused such significant damage to Gallagher that there is as much metal in his hand as there is muscle. However, he just keeps on going despite it all. Gallagher now has 27 goals on the season thanks to a wrist shot through the defenceman’s legs. It was a perfect screen. It was the kind of shot that a true goal-scorer scores. He knows it is not about power but deception.
- It’s been a bad run of games for Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin recently, especially Drouin, who was on pace to blow away his season-best total for points but then went on a seven-game slump without a single point. Drouin is breathing a sigh of relief again tonight as he hops on a plane after counting four huge assists. Drouin’s second assist was a beauty, as he read the play expertly, delayed for a lane to open up, shielded the puck, then fed it to Domi, who only had to wait for Shaw to create a screen in front before finding a wide-open net. Domi had a tremendous night. He scored twice to move to 22 goals on the season as he is blowing away his career-best total of an 18-goal season. It was a five-point night for Domi. It’s the first five-point game of his career. He has 59 points on the season, putting his career best of 52 well behind him. Domi is closing in on a point-per-game pace again, as he was in the first quarter of the year. Incidentally, the best season of Alex Galchenyuk’s career in Montreal was 56 points. It seems GM Marc Bergevin hit a home run in this trade, not for only the point totals but also the engine that Domi brings, and that he plays centre successfully, which is a more important hockey position than winger.
- The Habs made it 5-0 on an Armia goal that was scored into a wide-open net. It was so wide open because of the hockey brain of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, an 18-year-old rookie who kept his eyes on the goalie, fully suggesting a shot while sliding it far over to the left with a perfectly targeted pass — never looking even for a moment at Armia, making it the easiest goal of his career. This kid is a revelation. There are so many moments that you see Kotkaniemi do what only the best players in hockey do and only when they have been in the league five years — not as childlike rookies. It’s just stunning how intelligent this Finn is. The way he sees the game brings beauty to the sport. He is an artist at this, and that seems impossible considering his experience. To see this brain at work is why we love hockey. He makes the sport beautiful the way he sees it in his head. If he keeps growing and can keep slowing down the game in his head, watching him in five years will be like admiring a Picasso. Kotkaniemi was able to show the hockey world in a one-on-one match-up with Filip Zadina of the Red Wings that the Habs definitely made the right choice at the draft. Sure, they knew it already, but it is always interesting to see the head-to-head battle where one player is so significantly more talented as an NHLer than the other so far. In this one, Kotkaniemi shone, while it was difficult to remember if Zadina was actually in the lineup. Now that can, of course, change over time, but Kotkaniemi is the real deal — not sure what Zadina’s career path is yet. Kotkaniemi’s career path could be very special.
- The Habs needed a result in this one more than any game this season. They had gone five on the road without a win. They had to stop the bleeding of a poorly played game against the Devils and a horrible final half game in Toronto that looked bad for their confidence. Good teams don’t die just because they have suffered a couple games and felt the sting of a lost game that they should have won. Good teams recover. The Habs recovered. There were no goats. They all got together and they showed the Red Wings that they are vastly better in their respective rebuilds. The Habs showed the hockey world that they won’t lie down easily, even when their fan base and the radio hosts are in a panic.
- The Eastern Conference is strong this year, and it appears that it is going to take 97 points to win a playoff spot, which is certainly high. It may take only 91 points in the Western Conference this year, to provide some contrast. Nine teams have separated themselves from the pack in the east, but only eight will make it. The Habs were hoping for some help from the eighth-place team and the ninth-place team tonight, but losses for them did not happen. The eighth-place Carolina Hurricanes had no trouble at all with the Los Angeles Kings in Raleigh as they won their contest. The ninth-place Pittsburgh Penguins also came away with a victory, and this one hurts a little more for Habs fans, as they were not expected to earn a result in Columbus against a Blue Jackets team that loaded up at the trading deadline and is expected to pull away in the final seven weeks of the season. As of tonight, here are the point totals: Montreal 75, Carolina 74, Pittsburgh 74, Columbus 73. Three of the four will make the playoffs. One will have one outstanding season and still not make them.