The best team in the entire National Hockey League defensively was the opposition on Long Island Thursday night for the Montreal Canadiens.
The New York Islanders were supposed to be a pushover this season, but under Barry Trotz they’re on their way to a playoff spot. The Habs had to find their best selves as they looked to solidify a playoff spot as we head to the final dozen games of the season.
Though the score was close, the game was not.
It seemed as if the league allowed the Islanders to play with an extra man for the first period. If not for Carey Price, the scoreline would have been embarrassing to a team fighting for a playoff spot. One can try to point toward effort or attitude, but the simple truth is 95 per cent of the time in sports it’s about talent, and the Habs didn’t have enough of it.
It could have been 5-0 after the first period. The Habs have done an outstanding job of overachieving this season, but some nights it’s apparent that there isn’t enough talent. Price has a save percentage of 913 this season, but if you put him on the Isles it would be 935. He would have the best save percentage in the league on a strong team. The quality of shots that the Habs defence allows is extremely high. The quality of shots the Isles allow this season, though, is extremely low. This is as well as Price has played in a long time, and it was likely his best game of the season — yet he lost.
The Isles were an extremely impressive team. They were coming in waves for the first half of the game. Price is an amazing goalie, but he’s going to need more help.
The Islanders dominated, so there weren’t many Habs that stood out, but Jesperi Kotkaniemi had some excellent moments. He set up his mates well, and almost scored the game-winner on an impressive toe drag. He did that on the next shift after being absolutely rocked with a crushing hit, so it’s impressive when a player doesn’t change the way he plays after he gets struck.
Even better is he gets a little hungrier to make a good play right after to show that he won’t be fazed. On that same shift, Kotkaniemi hustled back to break up a goal by the Islanders directly in front of the net, as the defensive positioning continues to be much better than an 18-year-old centre should be able to show at the NHL level.
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Victor Mete was once again the Habs’ best defenceman on a night when they were pressured hard by the Isles. Mete had the speed and smarts to get the puck out of the zone better than his mates. He also head-manned the puck better than the rest as well. Mete is the only player besides Shea Weber who could handle these responsibilities against the other club’s best forwards. This isn’t where Mete belongs on the first pair when it is all done, but he sure is filling in admirably when he’s all they have on the left side.
Outstanding to see the dedication of Jeff Petry in the third period as he took a massive hit to make a play. He saw the hit was coming and he got ready, made the pass up ice, and then took the punishment. Petry has been criticized for not having the desire to play through that type of moment, but there it was as Petry did what was asked of him.
It’s just a small moment, but it’s a small moment that says a lot.
Fans don’t want to hear it, but the Isles were a far better team in this one despite a 2-1 score line. In the first period alone, it should have been 5-0 for New York as they seemed to have a power play the entire time. The Habs are short players on defence; they need three defenders that are better than their present-day defenders. When the Habs are an upper-echelon team, Mete, Weber and Petry will still be around. The rest will be replaced by Alexander Romanov, Josh Brook, and one other to be named later.
Those are the six defenders who will be around, and when that finally happens, the club won’t look like they need a world class goalie to avoid getting routed. The Isles won and they deserved to win. The shortcomings of the club were apparent. They need three better defenders and they need a game-breaker on offence who can change a game with one chance. They also need a backup goalie, but that’s not that hard to find. He’s probably already in the organization.
Those are the Habs’ needs. They’re not that far away, but on a night like this, you can also see that they aren’t all that close, either. All in all, though, to be positive, this has been a sensational recovery year from the 71 points that they had last season. The jump of 71 points to approximately 93 points is outstanding, and the future looks extremely bright when as many as five excellent prospects arrive.
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Help for the Montreal Canadiens power play is on the way — but unfortunately, not this year. The 31st and worst power play in the NHL needs a quarterback on defence.
That player is Josh Brook, who is dominating the Western Hockey League, and who should be able to achieve at the same level as a pro — perhaps as soon as next year. Brook is unstoppable with the extra man. In fact, he is nearly unstoppable overall this season. Brook has 57 assists in 57 games for Moose Jaw. He also has 72 points overall. He is second in scoring among defencemen in the league. Watching him play, you see a defender who reads the ice and distributes as well as anyone at his level in a long time. He was born to quarterback a power play.
Sure, it will take some time to get comfortable at the top rung, but he will all but certainly climb that ladder eventually.
The Habs’ power play needs a defender who can distribute, and Brook can. Brook is a natural right-side defender, but he played left side this season in the WHL and he played left side for Canada at the World Junior Hockey Championships in Vancouver and Victoria. This is another reason he will be so valuable beside Shea Weber on the power play. Weber can work his way into shooting positions, while Brook can also rotate from side to side depending on the angles of distribution. Right now, with Weber partnered with Jonathan Drouin back on the blue line with the extra man, Weber can’t get comfortable to push forward because he doesn’t instinctively trust Drouin to be able to defend if the puck is lost.
This stops Weber from being at his best on the power play. With Brook there, Weber can now roam freely to get into better shooting lanes and find himself letting his howitzer go from 30 feet instead of an always safe 50 feet. Brook is the key to a huge improvement either next season or after a season in Laval to get seasoned. The prediction here is Brook makes the Habs as soon as next year.
It’s been widely speculated recently that Shea Weber has suffered some type of injury that explains his lack of foot speed and mobility recently. It’s truly been a guess, because no one has seen anything on the ice. He has not laboured, nor has he tested any part of his lower body. However, early in the third period, Weber revealed what it might be overall. He was in the corner trying to retrieve the puck behind Carey Price, and an Islanders player tangled with Weber. His knee buckled to a point where it seemed like a wishbone needing just a little more pressure to give up completely. Thankfully it did not, as Weber was able to skate off.
At the bench, however, Weber was clearly in distress and grimacing in pain. The club is never going to say if Weber has had issues, but to watch him, and to know how impressive his pain threshold is, you have to believe that Weber does have an issue with his right knee. With his knee, Andrei Markov was not in good shape in his first season after surgery, either, so give Weber’s body some time to heal overall.
It takes time. He’s doing beautifully for a player out almost a full season, then thrown in to a 30-minutes-per-night environment.