The Montreal Canadiens had their most difficult test of the season against the Tampa Bay Lightning Tuesday night. The Lightning have been inconsistent early on this season, but when they are motivated, they are ferocious. The Lightning’s best win of the year was 7-3 dismantling of the Toronto Maple Leafs last week. Their worst loss was a 4-2 shocker to the Ottawa Senators. But Tampa came to the Bell Centre motivated to play — skating to a 3-1 win.
- Montreal’s J-Line had another strong game, except one horrendous shift. It’s interesting to note the Habs have played Jonathan Drouin at both centre and the wing over his years in Montreal. They have played him with a ton of different linemates as well, and nothing really seemed to click. But he’s finally finding chemistry with Jesperi Kotkaniemi as his centre, it seems. It’s the same story for Joel Armia, who didn’t seem to have a steady companion all last season either. Well, the J-Line is together this season and all three players are doing well. It’s the best Drouin has played as a Hab so far. Same can be said for Armia, who is off to a great start. Kotkaniemi isn’t getting a lot of ice time with just 11 minutes on average recently, but he’s looking strong with the time that he is getting. This J-Line is the so-called third line on the club. When your third line can do all that Jonathan-Jesperi-Joel are doing so far, you have a recipe for success. The top line of Tatar-Danault-Gallagher had top five Corsi numbers last season. The second line with Max Domi at centre, Artturi Lehkonen on one wing and Nick Suzuki on the other side needs Suzuki to find his way soon; what Domi can bring creatively gets wasted because Lehkonen is always just going to be the go-get-the-puck guy, not the finisher. The first three lines can be outstanding for this team, but it’s not quite there yet. The head coach threw everything into the blender in the third period against Tampa to try to jump-start his club, so it will be interesting to see if the J-Line is even together against the Minnesota Wild Thursday night. Head coach Claude Julien had Kotkaniemi on the wing to start the third, so this can’t be the future. Can it?
- The Habs defence was extremely suspect for the first four games of the season. They were averaging 39 shots allowed. It was ugly. The head coach then made the change that has calmed it all down to something much more manageable. Brett Kulak was brought back into the line-up and paired with Jeff Petry again. This was likely the best pairing for the Habs last season, and why it was broken up was a bit of a mystery. They’re back together and playing well. In the first period on Tuesday, Kulak made an outstanding play just in front of Carey Price to break up a pass that would have surely been a goal on the other side of the net. Five minutes later, it was Petry with the slap shot that opened the scoring for Montreal. The Kulak-Petry pairing back together again allowed a change that was clearly needed, moving Ben Chiarot to the third pairing where it seems he belongs. With less talent to face, less ice time, less responsibility, Chiarot is well within his comfort zone. The philosophy again is simple: the more defencemen a team has slotted in the correct spots, the better your defense will be. Kulak is comfortable as a second pair man. Chiarot is comfortable as a third pair man. Everyone is much more comfortable.
- A lot was made of a shift late in the first period when the Kotkaniemi line along with Victor Mete and Shea Weber were caught on the ice for 1:54. That’s an enormous amount of time. The lactic acid is building up. The lungs are empty. The heart is beating quickly. That’s how goals are scored against you, when fatigue makes decisions bad and speed atrocious. So as bad as it was for those five players, the context of the time on the ice has to be considered in the evaluation. Weber looked slow. Kotkaniemi was horrible on the shift. Drouin took a slashing penalty just before the Habs were scored on. Naturally, he made that mistake. The argument is not being made that all of those players were not horrible on that shift. They were. The argument is: to judge a hockey player during the second of those two minutes is an unfair exercise. Wayne Gretzky in his prime is not going to look good during the last 50 seconds of that mess. No one would ever look good when they’re exhausted. It happens. Sometimes there are horrible shifts. Every shift cannot be a referendum on the speed of Shea Weber. There’s a growing vocal majority that is hyper-critical of Weber. He’s not quick. There is no denying it. But he makes smart decisions and he positions well so he is not in trouble out there. The only thing to say is he is backing into his goalie a bit early, causing quality shots at times. All that needs to change is Weber and Mete need to be the second pair now. Jeff Petry is the horse on this team on defence now. He’s the guy who can carry 27 minutes comfortably. He’s the man. There’s a changing of the guard. It’s true. Weber and Mete as a pairing need to be in the 20-minute range now because collectively they can’t take on the best. However, let’s not write the obituary for anyone on the ice for two minutes looking tired and slow.
- Thanks a power-play goal, the Lightning took the lead early in the second. They made it look so easy against a Habs penalty kill that continues to be abysmal. The Habs have the fourth-worst in the league at 64 per cent success rate. The Vegas Golden Knights are the best with a remarkable 96 per cent success rate killing penalties. Perhaps the Habs shouldn’t watch video of their PK to figure this out. Go get the VGK video to watch their kills. The obvious is the Habs are too passive, allowing their opponents to set up. No one is allowed to set up freely anymore. It’s attack right from the get-go, as if you are not killing a penalty at all. It’s hard to win allowing almost a goal and a half per game facing the other club’s power play.
- Speaking of special teams, the power play is also a mystery. They’re doing well enough statistically, but the manpower just doesn’t make sense right now. The first unit is a mess because they all keep looking to Shea Weber to shoot. That’s fine because he has a powerful shot. The problem is the opposition is also looking only to Weber too. Defending the Habs is so easy as it’s like the hitter who has stolen the sign from the pitcher and knows the fastball is coming. Weber has a great fastball, but we all know it’s coming. Continuing with the manpower issue… what’s the best season in Jordan Weal’s career? His best season is eight goals and 21 points. How come Weal on the power play makes sense to so many supposedly erudite hockey people? Which one of the last three seasons with three goals, one goal and four goals screamed put this sniper on the power play? No offence, Jordan, you’re a serviceable hockey player and are worthy of a fourth-line role, but the first unit power play? It’s difficult to understand the genesis of this, and continues to be incomprehensible as we work our way through the book to revelations.
- All of these goats point a finger in one direction, don’t they? Let’s admit it. The head coach is making these decisions. The head coach is laying out these strategies. The head coach is choosing the manpower. In the third period, Kotkaniemi was on the wing. No one is going to think that is the right move for the future. Perhaps it is the move for the present, but the future isn’t going to be won with Nate Thompson at centre and the great first round hope drafted third overall on the fourth line playing the wing. Weal on the first unit power play is not a move the other 30 teams in the NHL would do either. Weber as the only strategy on the power play wouldn’t be raved about either as creative. What’s the positive here in this negative? It’s early and everything in October can seem ridiculous to look back at in April, because it all keeps changing and improving because if you are going to experiment, now is the time to do it.
- Cale Fleury with another game not playing for the Canadiens. It is clearly only a matter of time, and a short amount likely, before he is sent to the AHL to play for Laval. Julien said that Fleury is at a point in his career that he needs to play. Considering he won’t choose him to play over Christian Folin, or Mike Reilly, it is clear that his days are short and getting shorter. Julien favours veterans usually, so this is about as unsurprising as a January storm on the Prairies.