The Montreal Canadiens missed the playoffs last year by the slimmest of margins.
That fact creates an awareness that every game this season has to be taken seriously. Fatigue and injuries always play their part, but attitude plays a part, too. The Habs’ attitude this season must be one that considers each game a playoff game to have a successful season.
And success is measured in only one way: the Habs must make it to the post-season.
The club welcomes many new players in 2019-20, but the most excitement clearly centres around Nick Suzuki, who just might have been the Habs’ best player in training camp. The Carolina Hurricanes concluded their season with a playoff series win over the defending champions, so much is expected of them, as well. It’s a perfect set-up for night one of 82.
Two players who had difficult training camps were Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jonathan Drouin. For Drouin, the heat on him was intense, but a veteran has only one true goal in the pre-season and that is to not get injured. Drouin has nothing to prove in September anymore.
With that said, Coach Claude Julien was concerned enough that he moved him down to the third line. That’s where he started with Kotkaniemi, who also had a difficult camp. His camp was more concerning because as a second-year player, you are still proving yourself every night — even in September. The great news is when the regular season started, both upped their games significantly.
On the Habs 2-2 goal, it was Drouin who skated with huge speed and determination to get a loose puck, then fed it towards the goal where eventually it landed on the stick of the Finn. Kotkaniemi, with tremendous patience, looked at Petr Mrazak but refused to shoot until the goalie lost his balance and fell. That opened up the far side for Kotkaniemi’s first goal on the road in his NHL career.
It was a massive moment for the two. They were two concerns in the pre-season, but on night one of the regular season, the best two forwards were Kotkaniemi and Drouin. Julien has to be so relieved by that.
All eyes in Montreal this season are on the second-worst power play in the NHL last season. The Habs lost a lot of games by one goal last year. It was usually a goal that the power play did not score in five or six opportunities. So it was a welcome sign to see that the Habs scored a power play goal in this one. The first goal of the season was scored by Tomas Tatar as he picked right up where he left off last season, when he was a tremendous surprise in the Max Pacioretty trade. Tatar took an errant pass in the high slot and ripped it home.
It was a massive moment as the Habs were struggling offensively at the time. If they allowed the third goal before getting a first onel, it would have been a different night.
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One advantage that GM Marc Bergevin has created for himself is he has kept his salary cap in order. The biggest advantage of that is he can have four strong lines. Often in the NHL, the GM has spent so much money on his top players that the fourth line is simply not very good. There is no money left over. The fourth line on the Habs has Paul Byron, Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal.
The Habs’ fourth line is one of the best in hockey. The Habs have an opportunity to wear down their opposition with a fourth line that can take advantage of match-ups to be the difference maker. Late in the second period, the Habs tied at 2 and the fourth line put together just a gorgeous goal. Thompson fought off his man at the blue line, then fed Byron who found a wide-open Weal, amounting to a Habs lead.
The play started out looking like the Hurricanes were in full control defensively. It ended with them looking embarrassed by the skill level that the Habs had shown. Gorgeous goal.
The first game in the NHL career of Nick Suzuki was a good one. He does so many things intelligently. It wasn’t a night in which he shone all that much offensively, though he did have one excellent scoring opportunity where he almost banked it in from behind the net. He did, however, find himself in a good position defensively at all times.
He also jumps the play so beautifully, reading where the puck will go before it goes there. They say Suzuki can’t skate all that well, but it is hard to find any moment where it looks to be a concern. He seems ahead of the play always; certainly not behind it.
Carey Price was Carey Price — not a lot to say that you haven’t already heard a million times. He just does what he does. He gets to pucks that you can’t imagine that he could get to. Other times he just stands there and makes himself big. The Hurricanes had two breakaways in the first period with Price not allowing a goal on either. Ryan Dzingel was particularly flummoxed by Price once on a breakaway and another time with a wide-open net that Price got across to cover, though Dzingel hit the post, which could have been because there was nothing else available along the ice.
Price faced 19 shots in the third period alone.
It was also the first game in the NHL career of Cale Fleury after one season in the AHL. He had a superb night. Fleury had a breakaway early in the third period that he was unable to convert, but apart from that, Fleury was solid. His decision-making was excellent in what surely must have been a nerve-wracking night. Fleury often just does the simple play which is what defencemen who make it in the NHL do and continue to do, or they don’t last long.
Fleury was the revelation of camp when not a lot was expected. He beat out Reilly, Folin, and Alzner for the six slot. He showed why in Carolina.
Joel Armia had a shift in overtime that might have been the best shift of his career. He owned the puck, simply bullying his way through opponent after opponent. He held on to the puck for what seemed like 50 seconds, but was probably only 15. Armia, when he uses that strength to win puck battles, is unbeatable. He simply can’t be stopped.
It’s amazing to watch that type of balance and strength. What an overtime it was — a thrilling five minutes with Armia providing the greatest entertainment.
Can’t find fault with the second goal that the Habs allowed. It’s the power play so there is nothing to be done when Martin Necas glides through the crease and deflects the shot from the point only two feet in front of Carey Price. No chance whatsoever for Price to react to that. No chance for a defenceman to tie up Necas either.
Some goals are blameless. This is one of them.
It’s difficult to be critical early. It’s not always a fair exercise, but the scoreline wasn’t 8-0 Habs, so there were some mistakes that need to be addressed. Ben Chiarot didn’t have the greatest of games in his debut. Quite certainly, Carey Price will tell Chiarot if he keeps doing it to leave the goaltending to him, and go get the forward with the puck instead of lying in the crease getting in the way. On the 3-3 goal, Chiarot got all lost in terms of what his assignment was and ended up just crouched in the goal crease.
That’s just not the right idea unless the goalie is out of position. This time, he actually kind of tied up Price from getting to that half of the net to make the stop. Unfortunate moment, but just one in a long season.
The partnership of Shea Weber and Victor Mete didn’t have the best of games. They were hemmed in their own zone at times; the first pairing has to be in control of the game. They have to be two guys that a head coach can put out there to calm a game down when it’s in doubt.
This was hardly the case in the third period, as the Hurricanes’ pressure was relentless at times. If the Habs have an Achilles heal this season, it will be on defence. The forwards one through 12 are strong. They don’t have an elite scorer, but they have 11-12 strong players up front. Defensively, though, they probably only have two players on the first two pairings who are slotted into their proper roles.
Bergevin was unable to address that issue this off-season. Those players are going to have to come by way of the draft, because you can’t make a free agent play in your city no matter what the offer if he wants the peace and tranquillity of one reporter after the game, and anonymity in the streets on off-days.
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Shoot-outs? What can be said? It’s a crapshoot. I would have loved to see them keep playing. If it took five more minutes? So be it. If it takes 10 more? So be it. It’s three-on-three hockey. No one is getting decked. It’s fatiguing but it is the kind of fatigue from which one can recover. It would be great to just keep watching that tremendous three-on-three hockey for as long as it takes to settle it. Maybe next year.
Opening night for the Laval Rocket is Friday night at Place Bell. It should be an exciting season in Laval, with an abundance of veteran talent and some rookies to watch, too.
Most eyes will focus on Ryan Poehling as he begins his AHL stint there. Poehling shouldn’t be there long, as he will be the first call up in case of injury. Also worth watching is Josh Brook who shone brightly in the WHL last season. He had a rough start to camp, but played better as it wore along.
A season in the AHL is not a bad thing for any defenceman. It’s such a tough position to shine right away at the NHL level. Jake Evans, who had such an outstanding camp, will be fun to watch as well. He could just make it to the NHL which would be surprising considering where he was drafted and his age, but Evans never quits, it seems. A place in the show can arrive later rather than sooner if you keep working hard.
There’s a lot of money in Laval, which means they should win a lot of games, too. Dale Weise, Karl Alzner and Matthew Peca are just three players that will carry the load in Laval as they look for a playoff spot for the first time in three seasons.