They don’t get much bigger than this one unless it’s the playoffs. The Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins at the Bell Centre with the winner much closer to the post-season than the loser. The Habs, Pens, Columbus Blue Jackets, and Carolina Hurricanes will fight for three spots. One team of the four will not advance despite putting together a strong season. Remarkably, entering the night’s play, there were only two points separating the four teams.
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- No matter how disappointing the night, it seems Brendan Gallagher still has a positive to bring to the affair. Gallagher tried to get the Habs back into the game with a second period tally. Gallagher in tight to the goal, as usual, to count his 29th of the season. Gallagher had a career high of 31 goals last season, so with 16 games remaining he needs only three for a new career high. Gallagher is on pace for a 36-goal season. That would be quite a stunning total for a player who wasn’t supposed to ever be able to shoot effectively again after getting a tool box worth of screws put into his hand. He’s a fighter.
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- Jonathan Drouin didn’t get on the board, but he was flying in this one again. Drouin takes so much heat because he is not strong defensively, and he is also not a strong puck battler, but in the open ice he is an exciting and vibrant player. Drouin was unlucky to not put a point on the board in this one. Drouin has 50 points on the season. His career best is 53 points, so he is another player who will have a career year in this surprisingly good season from the Habs.
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- The best line on a rough night was the Max Domi line. The player-of-the-month Domi was skating beautifully, especially through the neutral zone. Andrew Shaw again offered a physical presence to support the line. This line can really put a scare into the opposition. They simply need to make sure that they are strong enough in the defensive zone and that is a question mark at times.
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- Jordie Benn is a good third-pair defenseman, but when you put him against Sidney Crosby, he’s going to suffer. However, the Habs hoped that pain wasn’t going to be felt on the first shift before the game was 20 seconds old. Benn felt the pressure from the Crosby line quickly as he had the puck on the right boards in his own zone, and passed it blindly to the Penguins. Two seconds later, it was in the net on the Crosby redirection that Carey Price had no chance to save. The Habs simply are not deep enough on the blue line to compete against the top players. Benn needs to play third pair against the opposition’s poorer players or he is outmatched. Not enough is made of match-ups and how they influence people’s perceptions, so think of how good Victor Mete has been since returning from Laval, playing with Shea Weber against the league’s best players. While the faults of Benn become apparent when considering match-ups, conversely it is time to heap praise on Mete who is handling the best players in the world quite well most nights.
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- Benn’s defensive compatriot on the second pairing made a mistake only four minutes later. Jeff Petry got beaten on the rush and had to take a penalty. The sixth-ranked power play in the league didn’t waste its chance as Evgeni Malkin counted on a big slap shot for a two-goal Pittsburgh lead. It was already a disaster. Petry struggled in this one start to finish. The coaching staff decided that Mike Reilly wasn’t playing well enough to stay in the line-up, but Petry misses him. He’s not playing well. The defence is destabilized since Reilly was benched. It isn’t that Christian Folin has been bad, but Reilly needs to get back in to the line-up to re-establish the best the Habs defence has been this season.
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- Nine minutes in and it was a three-goal lead for the Penguins. Nate Thompson lost the draw cleanly to Crosby who found Jake Guentzel. He fired right away through Price and it was as ugly as you could possibly imagine. Some nights it all goes wrong and there is nothing to do about it, except get a good sleep, pick up your spirit, then get back at it the next day. The Habs didn’t lose a playoff spot with this effort, but they will if they can’t pick themselves up remembering that it is only one game, and that there are many more that are also worth two points.
- Second period and it was the third pairing that was victimized by more high-end offensive skill from the Penguins. Brett Kulak was undressed and Folin was not able to cover the territory to stop the Guentzel’s shot. He ripped a beauty into the top corner. It was 4-0. It was over.
- Superstar players have the ability to make you look bad in a hurry, and this one showed that many nights the talent on the Habs’ blue line is not enough in comparison to the talent they have offensively. The Habs are sixth in the league in 5-on-5 scoring. Though there is no upper-echelon scorer like a Crosby or Malkin on the Habs, there is a lot of depth, and overall, the top nine compete for goals with the best. Defensively though, they certainly do not. The blue line is where the Habs need to improve, or they won’t find themselves in the top ranks for many seasons. This will be their plight year after year, scratching and clawing for a playoff spot. The pressure is on prospects Alexander Romanov, Josh Brook, and Noah Juulsen. Those three must be better than three who on the blue line now: Benn, Folin, and Kulak. If Romanov can become a reliable first-pairing blue-liner, then everyone else falls into their place. The great teams have a first pairing that can eat a ton of minutes against the best players in the game. It’s a must. It’s almost as vital as being strong down the middle. The future depends on the arrival of some better talent on the blue line.
- Habs prospect and first round draft choice Nick Suzuki was on a bit of a tailspin for the Guelph Storm for about two weeks, but he has recovered. In fact, he has played the best hockey of his junior career recently. Suzuki has been on fire with 16 points in his last seven games. For three junior seasons, Suzuki has been the model of consistency, essentially averaging a point and a half per game the entire time. The 2.2 points per game for the last two weeks is the hottest that he has been. Mid-week, Suzuki had a five point game. Last night, he had three assists. Suzuki was also named the player of the month for the Storm. He is once again on pace to break 100 points on the season. The bonus for Habs fans is Guelph is one of the best teams in the league and fans may get plenty of playoff chances to watch Suzuki perhaps move all the way to the Memorial Cup.