Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens dropped by the San Jose Sharks
The last time the Montreal Canadiens won in San Jose before Thursday night, Jesperi Kotkaniemi was just a twinkle in his father’s eye. It was 1999 when the Habs last beat the Sharks in overtime. Breaking a two-decade-long drought would be perfect timing in a year that the visit to the Bay Area means so much. The Habs hold a slim two-point cushion over the Columbus Blue Jackets for the final playoff spot in the East Conference after a 5-2 loss.
- When Jonathan Drouin was traded from Tampa Bay to Montreal, the Habs got a Quebec hero. They got a francophone with exciting moves and wonderful stick skills. The feeling was that he would become an immediate fan favourite, that he would get praised easily when he did even the smallest talented move. Oddly, the exact opposite thing has happened. The local hero has seen every mistake magnified by a fan base that has not embraced him at all. Take a night like in San Jose when Drouin was flying. He weaved through Sharks defenders like they were bantam players. Drouin looked fantastic yet you couldn’t find a compliment on social media about a shift when he owned the puck. Drouin will set career highs for points this season. Most of the discourse though will centre around him looking tired or lazy. Shame. Certainly, he didn’t imagine that he would have the best season of his career — a veritable breakout season — only to feel the wrath of his people.
- What a tremendous season Andrew Shaw is having. There are worries about his health all the time, and it seems every injury he has, whether they call it a concussion or a neck injury, feels like it could be more brain trauma. With that as a backdrop, it would seem that the slow demise for his career would be taking root. Not even close. Shaw is playing the best hockey that he has played since coming from Chicago for two second-round draft choices. Shaw scored the Habs second goal of the game. He now has 17 goals on the season in 49 games. Shaw isn’t just scoring, though. He is also a force in the corners, a pain to play against, an annoyance to screened goalies, and he is defensively responsible. If Shaw stays healthy, this doesn’t have to be a constant lament from fans about the two second rounders that got away.
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- When Jesperi Kotkaniemi gets back in the line-up, the fourth line is going to look as solid as it has the entire season. The fourth line could be Jordan Weal, Nate Thompson, and Artturi Lehkonen. That sure beats Nicolas Deslauriers, Michael Chaput and Tony Agostino. Weal in his first game scored the game winner. He brings good wheels and a strong offensive instinct. He has looked strong in two games. With Weal, Dale Weise and Thompson, the fourth line was strong again, though Thompson was weak on the fourth goal by the Sharks. It’s a good deadline acquisition for the GM Marc Bergevin who knew he needed some help on that fourth line, even after also acquiring Weise and Thompson. It certainly looks like the career of Charles Hudon could be close to over in Montreal. He will likely get one more chance to become a regular somewhere. He’s just so far down the depth chart now, there would have to be three injuries at forward for Hudon to get a chance. Weal has won a spot with his play the last two games. It should be Weise who sits next.
- Paul Byron was all over the ice. The Sharks could not handle his speed. He was superb, but none of that will matter at all to him, because Byron could not find a way to beat Martin Jones in the Sharks’ net. After two 20-plus seasons in goals, Byron will finish well shy because of injuries and a lower quality finish around the net. He has played only 44 this season with 12 goals on the season after campaigns of 22 and 20. Just one of those years where things don’t go your way, but Byron is still playing well. He will recover.
- Victor Mete is upping his game to another level in the past three weeks. He’s really figuring out what he can and cannot do at the NHL level. What that essentially means is he is trying more, and he is finding that he can do what he is trying. What an amazing feeling that is for a young hockey player. To try a new aspect of your game that you could succeed at in juniors, and find that you can do it at the NHL level. Mete playing the 2019 version of the hockey rover again in San Jose. He is doing this every night now. It surely can’t be too much longer before he finally scores his first NHL goal. He’s on the rush as a defenceman a very high number of times. He almost counted on one rush that he turned into a breakaway, but could not put a one-hander in. It was expected that Mete would top out as a 5-6 defender, but he is looking more and more like he could be a long-time comfortable 3-4. The Habs had a plan last year to put Mete with Jeff Petry to close out the season, but it didn’t take flight. It would seem the right partnership as the 3-4 when prospects like Alexander Romanov and Josh Brook arrive to play on the top pair. One of the two, likely Romanov, should move into the role of partner for Shea Weber. Wherever Mete ends up, the Habs have a reliable asset on the blue line for years to come.
- The Habs looked ready. They had good legs. They took the game to the Sharks early. They wanted to compete in this game to change 20 years of bad history. However, you can’t win when your goalie doesn’t look better than a tier-two goalie. The last game Antti Niemi was replaced he allowed three goals on nine shots. In this one, he allowed two goals on the first six shots. That’s five goals allowed in 15 shots. The two quick goals allowed in San Jose were horrendous. The first was a wide wrap around that he was fishing for as he tried to get to the other side, then it went off the inside of his own stick, which wasn’t positioned against his pads as required. With the second goal, he was deep in his net, making his body small and squished, and a shot moving about 15 miles per hour went short side off of a bad angle. Abysmal. You’d like to be charitable, but it was abysmal. Niemi entered the night with an .889 save percentage. Just not good enough. You make your mates score five times for you to pick up the win with that as a save percentage. GM Marc Bergevin has had one hell of a year rebuilding this team. The trades to acquire Max Domi, and Tomas Tatar have been massive to the fortunes of the team, but he didn’t get a back-up goalie. He should have known that Niemi could not pull off those numbers of last year again this season. Help is on the way as a back-up in the coming seasons, but they may want to acquire someone until then if they don’t have confidence in Charlie Lindgren, which they clearly do not.
- A second straight game for Jesperi Kotkaniemi out of the line-up has left many fans questioning the wisdom of Claude Julien. The reason is Kotkaniemi was asked if he was tired, which is why the head coach said the 18-year-old rookie wasn’t playing. Naturally, he said he was not tired. This led many to believe that Julien got it wrong. The truth is, of course, no player is ever going to say that he is tired. It’s tantamount to saying that you don’t like to play in the NHL, really. Kotkaniemi is going to be fine. His career is not going to be impacted by sitting for some games in his rookie season. Patrick Bergeron was sat by Julien in his rookie season, and he faired pretty well overall. In fact, Julien surely sees some Bergeron in Kotkaniemi. Both players, when they were 18, were well ahead of their peers in the defensive aspects of their game. Kotkaniemi has zero goals on the road this season. It’s not like someone feeling frantic about this season can point out some tremendous offensive contribution this year on the road that is going to cost the Habs the game. This will, with the passage of time, be a footnote in the history of Kotkaniemi in the NHL.
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