All you can ask for as a fan is to be entertained.
It is actually the reason that we invest so much time in sports — simply to pass some hours in enjoyment. With that in mind, Thursday’s opener in Raleigh, N.C., was all you could ask for. Night two of 82 was just as enjoyable for Habs fans as Montreal took on the Leafs in Toronto.
And it was a barnburner.
- The best forward after two games for the Canadiens this season is Jonathan Drouin — the one that everyone was obsessed with this pre-season. Drouin’s key to success is he needs to remember that while he may be highly skilled, most good in hockey comes from hard work. Drouin has to fight for pucks along the boards as hard as he skates to join a two-on-one rush. So far, he is doing exactly that. His work rate is high, and it is leading to success. Another key for Drouin is he has to keep his shifts short. For whatever reason, Drouin has difficulty many times after 40 seconds on his shift. He makes mental mistakes when his legs are heavy, and he cheats his work rate. Again, no issues this season. If he can remember always to work hard and get off the ice when he feels tired, then all of that talent has a chance to shine through for him this season.
- Another player worth noting was Max Domi. His work rate is outstanding. He has outstanding skills. Additionally noteworthy early on this season is how well Domi is protecting the puck. On the second goal which was credited to Drouin, it was Domi who created the entire moment by winning the zone, fighting off his defenders brilliantly with one hand on the stick and then feeding to Drouin who banked it in off Morgan Rielly.
- Though Tomas Tatar personally had a difficult night staying out of the penalty box, the line of Tatar, Philip Danault and Brendan Gallagher had its fair share of pressure and was rewarded with the Habs’ third goal of the night. Montreal has one of the best lines in the league here. They won’t win any offensive awards but the point of hockey is to be positive as a line in goals for versus goals against. In that category, the line was the second-best in the league last year behind only Nathan MacKinnon’s line in Colorado. Danault is a catalyst in this category as a strong defensive centre, but Gallagher is also strong without the puck while getting zero credit for it. The line got stronger as the game went on and with just over four minutes left it was that line that put the Habs ahead 5-4.
- Carey Price allowed five goals, so it seems impossible that he should be credited as one of the best of the game. However, Price in the 3-on-3 overtime stopped two breakaways and not just against anyone: He stopped John Tavares and Mitch Marner on clear cut breakaways from the blue line. In the shootout, Price stopped Matthews, Marner and Tavares. That’s a trifecta of talent. The stops put the game in the win column for Montreal. Price is going to be extremely busy this season. He’s allowed eight goals in two games, and he’s been strong. It’s excellent, but under the surface, that can’t be good.
- It’s so difficult for a defenceman to remind himself that goals are scored in front of your own net. The instinct is to try to clear it forward, but it is the absolute worst place to try to clear a puck. Early first period, Brett Kulak has a chance to relieve the pressure in the low slot. The puck is on his stick and that old, bad hockey instinct kicks in and he pushes it “forward” to Auston Matthews. The game is tied on another outstanding shot from the Leafs forward. The instinct has to be for a defenceman to throw the puck into the corner. No one scores goals from behind the net, generally speaking. When a defender throws the puck in a panic to behind the net, everyone on the defending team gets a chance to settle down again. Time passes. The attacking team has to regroup if they get to the puck first. The play has to begin anew. It’s such a difficult moment for a defender because it’s counter-intuitive. However, the best defenders, if you watch closely, they throw it behind the net in that moment of danger when they don’t know who is where on the attacking team. Other options are up high in the air over the blue line because no one is 12 feet tall. The next option is off the glass on a hard bank. The third option is in the corner. The final and worst option is sliding it along the ice, especially to Matthews as that man can snipe.
- That first goal for the Leafs didn’t start with that error though from Kulak. There were so many errors on it. Cale Fleury gave a suicide pass that caused one hard moment. Nick Suzuki wasn’t able to clear. Nate Thompson also wasn’t able to clear. This was all before the final mistake by Kulak. Some goals against have one culprit, some have two, but this goal had four players who erred in some capacity.
- Heading into the season, it was easy to predict where the Habs weakness was. The club did not improve its defence. Ben Chiarot was supposed to be the big improvement, but so far, he doesn’t look that much better than Jordie Benn — a comparison not made accidentally. Chiarot is not a puck mover and in today’s game, that’s certainly a minus. If you are not a puck mover, then you better be an effective puck defender, but he’s fronting players so much that it seems as if he is defending all the time. Fronting your forward seems fine to the untrained eye because generally speaking you don’t look bad as your opponent is at least in front of you, but the downside, of course, is your opponent is forever holding the puck as you let him get to it first and then you’re hanging back making sure not to be too aggressive. It’s the safe play that a poor defenceman chooses all the time as his go-to move. All this leads to a lot of zone time though in front of Carey Price. More zone time; more goals scored against. Chairot is entirely cut from the same cloth as Benn. Not particularly impressed with this free-agent signing, but it’s early.
- All in all, clearly the defence is an issue, just as most expected. The key to a good defence is all six players are in their right roles. The top pairing has to have two players who can face the league’s best and succeed. The second pairing has to be two who can also face some top-quality opposition. If someone is in the wrong role, then everyone will suffer. The best example that Habs fans will recognize is Benn last season. If he were on the third pairing, the feeling was that he was strong. If he was on the first pairing facing the best players, the feeling was that he was horrendous. The problem for the Habs this season is they have only two of their top defenders in their correct spots: Weber is a first pair D; Petry is a second pair D. Mete is too high up on the top pairing. Chiarot is too high up on the second pairing. It’s trouble. The Canadiens D could be trouble. Price is going to have to be outstanding or the offence is going to have to score a lot for the Habs to have a winning formula this season. They really don’t have enough talent back there to defend strongly. Not picking just Chiarot for criticism here. One through six, there just is not enough talent overall.
- Nick Suzuki will need to learn that there is not nearly as much time in the NHL to mess around in your own zone waiting to make a delightful play. Move it forward. Get it out of danger. Suzuki was victimized on the second goal behind the net stick-handling. No time, Kid. Get it out. There were a massive amount of defensive mistakes in this one, but it’s easiest to send a message to the kid, so Suzuki was moved down to the fourth line by the third period.
- The Laval Rocket was supposed to be good this year. They have a lot of veterans in their line-up and some highly talented rookies, but so far, it is a massive disappointment north of Montreal. The Rocket lost twice to Cleveland on the opening weekend at Place Bell. The final scores were 3-2 and 4-1 and one can really only point to a single player to mention positively. Cayden Primeau started his professional career Saturday afternoon and he shone, allowing only two goals in a game that the Rocket were dominated in. Primeau had a save percentage of .935 in his first game and that is simply outstanding. Primeau was a seventh-round draft choice and all he has been doing is dominate at every level since that draft day. The Rocket next play on the road Saturday in Milwaukee.
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- A moment of kindness worth mentioning as Nick Suzuki gets two tickets from the Habs organization for the game, but he had four family members that he wanted to bring to the game. He hesitated because of the price of the tickets. Jonathan Drouin happened to be around for the moment, and he said “get the four tickets. I’ll pay for them.”