It is the start of a busy week for the Montreal Canadiens in Buffalo.
Wednesday night, it’s the Sabres. On Thursday, it’s the home opener at the Bell Centre, where the Habs will be favoured against the Detroit Red Wings. The concluding game Saturday night against the Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues should be a huge test.
The Habs have points in both of their games so far this season, but the Sabres have been sneaky good to start the year as well. Remember also that Buffalo took three of four from the Habs last year and Montreal missed the playoffs by two points.
- Jesperi Kotkaniemi had a bad camp. He put on 10 pounds and it looked like maybe he was not carrying it all that well. In the previous training camp, he was so strong that he shockingly made the team. This camp, he had done almost nothing. He was so average that TVA Sports even suggested he would not make the team. This, of course, did not happen. Now the season has started, Kotkaniemi has arrived. He didn’t score a goal all season on the road. This season, he has two goals already. He also is around the puck a lot and creating plays. His goal in the third period Wednesday night was a beauty, firing a shot into the top corner from in close.
- Joel Armia is not a fan favourite most of the time, because he’s not a great finisher and doesn’t have sweet moves. But Armia is one of the best puck battlers you will ever see. He simply can not be taken off the puck when he has control. He had a shift in overtime the other night that was so spectacular it could be a teaching video of how to block out your checker. Armia’s strength is the key there, but it is also balanced. When Armia is scoring goals, that’s a bonus that makes him very valuable to the Habs. The goal Armia counted against the Sabres was on a terrific play from Nate Thompson shorthanded as he spotted Armia alone in front of the net, and he looked poised and patient to make the deke and then potted it upstairs on Hutton. The Habs were a little sleepy at the time. The goal changed the complexion of the contest. Last season, Armia was on the power play. It was a mess. In his career, he had done absolutely nothing with the extra man, and that actually wasn’t even hyperbole, he had done nothing. This year, Armia gets on the power play yet again, but this time he takes a puck directed to him by Nick Suzuki, for his first NHL point, then pots it upstairs again for his second goal of the game. The Habs looked suspect at times in the first period, but left the opening frame with a 2-1 lead.
- It is only three games in, but it’s time to say it already: the Habs are the same hockey team as last season. Pretty much exactly the same. They will finish pretty much in the same place depending on injuries. In net, they have upgraded some with Kincaid over Niemi. At forward, they are essentially the same team. Kotkaniemi is pretty much the same player. He has not improved from last season by any significant measure — maybe five more points, outside shot at 10. The addition of Nick Suzuki will not be an upgrade of any major note as he will likely come in at 25 points, if he doesn’t spend some time in the minors. The forwards are strong, but they are just as strong as last season. The offence will once again cause fits for the opposition goalies and defenders. Just like last year. On defence, this is the same team as last season. The improvements have not been made. The club will struggle in its own zone to the same degree as last campaign. The upgrade was supposed to be Ben Chiarot over Jordie Benn, but what is fascinating in assessing GM Marc Bergevin is he seems to have signed Jordie Benn again but his name is Chiarot. They play the same game. Bergevin is always fascinated by the exact same defensive profile of a player. Chiarot and Benn have the same issues. Mete is good but he is the same player this year. There will be no breakout for Mete. Kulak is the same player. Cale Fleury wasn’t even in the line-up. So to recap: their back-up goalie slightly better and Carey Price is still amazing, so they’re at a very good talent level; forwards essentially the same talent level which is very good; defence essentially the same talent level which is not very good. Folks, it’s the same team as last year. There’s no reason to believe in some miracle improvement here into the 105 point range. Talent wins games. This talent level is exactly the same. Truth is this is kind of uncanny to have a team from one season to another that is so similar in this cap era of turnstile line-ups. Your 2019-20 Habs are your 2018-19 Habs. Expect 96 points. It will be fun. There will be a lot of enjoyable nights. They’ll be competitive. They’ll score a lot of goals. They’ll make a lot of defensive errors. Price will have to shine. They’ll fight for the playoffs and with 96 points, it’s a coin toss whether that will be enough.
- Admittedly, the power play of the Sabres is on fire. When they scored early in the first period, the Sabres were seven for 11 with the extra man. With that said, the Canadiens penalty killers were extremely passive. They allowed the possession and did not challenge in any capacity at all to take time and space away. Again, the Sabres did well, but it has to be said that Paul Byron, Nate Thompson, Shea Weber, and Ben Chiarot were not able to make things difficult at all. Nick Suzuki got a lot of penalty kill time in the pre-season. He seemed to do well. He reads the play well and has a good first step quickness which is vital for a penalty killer. Thompson doesn’t seem the quickest foot to make things difficult in puck races, but he is an intelligent player. Let’s see how this progresses because the power play is already a mess. The Habs can’t afford for the penalty kill to not be top-notch this season.
- Tomas Tatar doing a horrible job for the Habs this year staying out of the penalty box. Four minor penalties already and none of them were necessary at all. There is not a worse feeling either when the opposition scores when you have taken a needless penalty. Tatar with two minors and the Sabre with two power play goals. Worse is that they were lazy penalties. The Habs were outstanding last season 5 on 5. In fact, they were one of the best teams in the league. Their downfall was special teams, especially the power play which was second worst in the league. Special teams again the story this season, but so far it is the PK that has not been efficient whatsoever. Habs fans worried that this sentence could become a theme … Ben Chiarot had an opportunity to clear it before the goal but he was unable to.
- Chiarot was also on the ice for the third Sabres goal. He was paired at the time with Jeff Petry as they watched Jack Eichel skate down the ice. Both defenders’ gap control was horrendous. They kept backing into Keith Kincaid to the point that when Eichel fired it home, he was between the face-off circles. He shouldn’t have been allowed to get even close to that spot. The defenders did a very poor job on the play. A rare off moment for Petry who has been the Habs best defender for the first three games. However, not so rare for Chiarot. It is going to be interesting to see his numbers this year. Watch that Corsi figure because it might just not be what Marc Bergevin was hoping for, though no doubt he liked the tying goal by Chiarot to force overtime.
- So much expected for the Laval Rocket this season with a veteran-laden line-up and some strong young talent as well, but so far it is more of the same from the AHL affiliate. Two games and two losses so far dropping a pair to Cleveland on opening weekend. The next game for the Rocket is Saturday night in Milwaukee against the Admirals.
- There were two roster moves for the Habs for the Buffalo game as apparently Claude Julien wasn’t that impressed with Brett Kulak and Cale Fleury. The exemption of Fleury was not surprising at all as he did struggle and Julien has a shorter leash for young players than veterans when mistakes are made. The exemption of Kulak is a bit of a surprise as he was one of the steadier D-Men to conclude last season and had seemed to be beyond losing his spot in the line-up. If the Habs can not rely on a steady Kulak, this will be a real blow to a blue line that is already challenged. It seems the Habs have a player named Achilles Heel on the second pair and two more on the third pair this year. Someone has to step up or the strong offensive posture the club is able to show will be neutralized by the mistakes on the backline.