The quest for the final playoff spot between the Montreal Canadiens and the Columbus Blue Jackets will likely come down to Thursday night’s game.
The Habs entered the contest with a two-point cushion but without Paul Byron, who suffered a concussion in their game against the Florida Panthers on Tuesday. Nicolas Deslauriers returned to the lineup to replace him.
Meanwhile, the Blue Jackets arrived having played one fewer game than their opponents and with the tiebreaker in their favour.
Columbus took the game, defeating the Canadiens 6-2.
- One of the themes of this successful Habs season has been the effort by coaching staff to embrace 200-foot, modern hockey. Gone are the days when defenders only defend and attackers only attack. If you can’t play both ends of the ice no matter what your position then you can’t play the modern game. For the Habs this season, this has meant a much better team of forwards defending when they need to and being more responsible. But the real difference is seen in the defenders on the club. The amount of offence from the defence is excellent. The rearguards have joined the rush beautifully while the forwards have fallen back just as beautifully to defend the pinch when called for. The result is seeing Victor Mete rushing up the ice many times. Even Shea Weber has been seen in the offensive corner to continue the play and continue to apply pressure on defenders all of the time. By contrast, the Florida Panthers had absolutely no defensive structure on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre. The Panthers had no idea where each of the players was meant to be, and when there was a defender chipping in to provide some offensive support, it meant a two-on-one for the Habs. In this game, a perfect case in point was the four-on-four in the second period where Phillip Danault led the rush and found Jeff Petry in support. That’s right: Petry on the rush. He found the net from a bad angle, and the Habs took the lead at 2-1. That is perfect 200-foot hockey in the modern era.
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- It’s the little things that can make a difference. The Blue Jackets were on a two-on-one in the first period when a pass was made perfectly cross the ice, meaning the most difficult of saves for a goalie, but just before the shot was going to be struck, Phillip Danault dove flat on his stomach to stretch out his stick. Danault got in the way of the pass, and the chance was thwarted beautifully. No way to know if a goal was saved, but the chance of it was good. It’s the hardest stop for a goalie in today’s NHL. Danault has been the best defensive forward this season for the Habs. This was another shining example of how he plays a terrific 200-foot game.
- Joel Armia would be an excellent playoff performer for the Habs if they are able to earn a spot. His game is exactly what succeeds in the playoffs. He competes hard. He battles hard. He is a moose to take off the puck. When he gets his one arm on the stick and protects the puck to one side then blocks out his opponent, who is trying to check him on the other side, it seems as if Armia could skate around the ice for a couple minutes and the checker would still be held at bay. Armia has been another in a list of terrific trades by Marc Bergevin in the off-season. The ink is always drying when it comes to Max Domi, Tomas Tatar and Danault, but there should also be some good words about Bergevin’s work on this deal as well, picking up the salary for goalie Steve Mason then buying him out when the Winnipeg Jets were up against the salary cap. Bergevin also picked up a seventh-rounder and a fourth-rounder in the deal. Terrific ingenuity to get a strong addition in Armia.
- The Habs were looking in total control early in the second period when they were stopped by fundamentals of hockey that had nothing to do with their play. The Habs made a line change that was done so poorly that Petry and Christian Folin were all by themselves on a five-on-two. It’s not easy to manage to have no forwards applying back pressure — as in there was not even a single forward in the same area code as the five Blue Jackets coming down the ice, as if it was one of those practice drills that a coach does to help his struggling team with their confidence so they can easily score and feel good about themselves. Totally abysmal from the Habs. The Habs gave back the game for the silliest of reasons. That’s one that makes a coach seethe with anger.
- Late in the second period, the Habs were handling themselves well, but then the Blue Jackets took the lead for the first time. It was a one-on-one battle between Mete and Matt Duchene in which Mete got schooled. It was a spin-o-rama by Duchene, and Mete was suddenly left behind. That led to Duchene with the cross-ice pass to Artemi Panarin. He fired it upstairs. It was 3-2 Columbus. Early in the third period, Mete was part of the reason the Blue Jackets went up 4-2. He took a hit after making a pass and got out of position, avoiding the hit. It also didn’t help that Jesperi Kotkaniemi made a neutral zone giveaway. In fact, it was a night that was too big for Kotkaniemi. He was outplayed fairly significantly all night and was unable to match the intensity of the game. He’s 18 years of age; it’s to be expected. In fact, the moment being too big for Kotkaniemi is a microcosm of why the night went the way it did. The Habs are just getting started here. They have young players who aren’t quite ready for prime time yet in a playoff-style game. Who struggled most in this 6-2 loss? Mete. He’s in his second NHL season, just out of his teens. Kotkaniemi is 18 years of age, and this time last year, no one even knew his name. The Habs are just getting started. It’s been an outstanding season, and if this is the night that the season ended, you can see what they still lack — experience. They also need some more high-end talent like Columbus has in Panarin and Duchene, who had the quality to beat them in this one. The Habs are close, but they’re not there yet in this rebuilding year. They need a game breaker like Panarin. They need a 1-D like Seth Jones. They need another second pair defender as well. Also, they need some seasoning for their young players so the next time that Mete and Kotkaniemi have to face a night like this, they will be more ready. This probably was the night that the season’s hope of a playoff spot ended. The road is now extremely difficult, but it shouldn’t be a night to feel demoralized. The Habs have come so far this season. This was a team that had 71 points last season. It’s a remarkable jump this year. This season also gives the GM a chance to see what he is missing. Next season will be even better. Kotkaniemi will be a year older. Mete will be a year older. Four outstanding prospects could be arriving, or it may be less, but a very high-talent set of prospects is on its way. The low point is in. The high points are still around the corner, it is true, but a vision of the future sees some excitement in it, finally.
- The excitement starts this weekend as the regional finals are played in college hockey with 16 teams still alive for the national title. The No. 1 team in the U.S.A. is St. Cloud State, but they will likely be without the Habs’ top prospect Ryan Poehling this weekend. He is listed as questionable for the Huskies with a neck injury after crashing into the boards in the conference semifinals. Another prospect who is looking like he has the stuff to be an NHLer is goalie Cayden Primeau. He will try to lead Northeastern to another improbable victory. This was supposed to be a rebuilding year for Northeastern’s Huskies after losing Hobey Baker winner Adam Gaudette and Dylan Sikura to the NHL, but they have not missed a beat thanks to Primeau. He was the tourney MVP with a .965 save percentage as the Huskies won the Hockey East title. Another Habs pick, Jordan Harris, is also on the Northeastern team, as he has been skating on their first pair defensive unit, shining brightly after being drafted last year. In junior hockey, one top pick, Josh Brook, is already finished his playoffs as the Moose Jaw Warriors were swept by the Saskatoon Blades in their first-round series. However, another top prospect, Nick Suzuki, is on fire, as are the Guelph Storm, who are on the verge of sweeping the Kitchener Rangers. The Storm have won the first three contests.
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- The head coach of the Habs, Claude Julien, gave an update on Paul Byron on Tuesday. He says that Byron is feeling better after suffering a concussion in a fight on Tuesday night. Byron took an uppercut straight to his chin and was knocked out. Keep in mind that there is no seven-day protocol in place anymore for concussions. The NHL and the NHL Players’ Association agreed in a quiet manner to dispense of it in the last collective bargaining. Likely it was a legal issue, but the cancelling of the protocol was met with so little attention, it’s hard to know what the underlying reason was. The point is that the Habs don’t have to wait for seven days before Byron can return. He can come back at the team’s and his own discretion; it’s a sad step backwards for concussion protocols. Hopefully, players are not intimidated into returning before they are ready or convincing medical professionals that they would like to return. A seven-day protocol takes a lot of the emotion out of what would be better served as a purely medical must — as in, you must not see action again for a minimum of seven days, then you must pass your SCAT test after that. Maybe one day, we will make a smart move back to that seven-day protocol. This seems so obvious to those who have studied the long-term effects of concussions.
- The Habs benefitted from a Carolina Hurricanes loss to the Washington Capitals. Montreal is tied with Columbus and one point back of the Hurricanes. Both Carolina and the Blue Jackets have a game in hand on Montreal. They also both own the tiebreaker over Montreal. The Habs likely have to run the table to get to 98 points and win a playoff spot. That’s four straight wins starting with a difficult date in Winnipeg on Saturday night.