Head coach Claude Julien describes his Montreal Canadiens so far this season as “average.”
The record heading into a home date against the Minnesota Wild was 2-2-2 — that’s six points out of a possible 12, and certainly not good enough for a club that felt they were better this season than last. But there’s plenty of time to right the ship, starting with a Wild club who had only one win in six starts.
The Wild lived up to form as the Habs won it 4-0 at the Bell Centre.
The first horse has to be Victor Mete. He could have made 1,000 horrible plays, but he was still going to be a horse in this one after scoring his first career goal.
It only took 127 games to do it, but it was a beauty for the second-year Habs defenceman. Mete snuck in from the blue line, took the Nick Cousins pass from behind the net, and one-timed it home behind Alex Stalock.
It was a gorgeous goal. The fans roared right away, as the most intelligent supporters in hockey knew what had just happened.
The roar was just as intense when he was announced as the goal scorer. The Habs bench was all smiles as well. Importantly as well, the Habs needed the first goal during what was a lacklustre first period.
Now that’s more like it on the power play for the Canadiens when the Habs had a 5-on-3 advantage. Recently, they have simply let Shea Weber wind up from 40 feet, which is rather low percentage against today’s NHL goalies who don’t let in 40-footers like they used to. This time, the Habs finally worked it down low, but it took some talent.
It was Jonathan Drouin who provided it. He had two defenders in front of him, so he changed his angle quickly moving to his left. That opened up the lane in a cross-seam pass to Joel Armia, who took the cross-crease pass and deftly raised it up and over the tender for a 2-0 Habs lead.
Less than two minutes later, the milestone night continued. Habs fans had just seen Mete’s first NHL goal, then they saw Nick Suzuki count the first of his career. It took some talent to get it, too. Suzuki had a loose puck with a very tight angle, which he was able to push home on the back hand. Not a lot of players are able to complete that moment like Suzuki did. That’s why he was the leading scorer and most valuable player of the OHL playoffs last season. It was also why he was a first-round draft pick.
With the Habs enjoying their best period of the season, gaining a 3-0 lead over the Wild, Suzuki took a load off his shoulders, too.
The head coach made one roster change up front for the contest against the Wild and it was a good one. Jordan Weal had been doing little for the Habs in six games. He had scored one time, but the decision to have him on the power play seemed quite ill-conceived.
Weal’s best NHL season has only eight goals in it. This is hardly power play material. Max Domi got on the first unit in this one and that obviously makes a lot more sense to have your leading scorer last season getting the excellent looks. Weal left for Nick Cousins. It was his first game of the season, and he was hungry to prove himself. Cousins was around the puck often. He made great plays on both sides of the puck, getting an assist on an intelligent pass from behind the net to Mete pinching in from the point.
This is a change that has to continue on the weekend in St. Louis and Minnesota.
Julien also made a roster move on the blue line that worked very nicely. Christian Folin was left out for Cale Fleury and he had a strong game. His Corsi was second-best on the team among blue liners, behind only Jeff Petry. Fleury makes a lot of intelligent plays: he uses the body more than you would expect, he’s positioned well and he moved the puck up well. In fact, it’s that last ability to move the puck that the Habs lack when they have Folin playing.
Ben Chiarot has not been able to break a habit of going D-to-D when he possesses it as he himself has testified that they did in Winnipeg. So the Habs need someone who can move it quickly to the speedy forwards who can’t be waiting around for a pass or their speed is neutralized. Fleury certainly deserves another look.
Carey Price‘s shutout was so vital for him as he entered the contest with an .896 save percentage. The Wild had only 17 shots on goal, so Price did not have to work hard. It has to be said, though, that the defence has been considerably better since Brett Kulak got back together with Jeff Petry. Julien’s realization that they’re his top pairing was even more important as they lead the ice time now over the pairing of Shea Weber and Victor Mete. All that adds up to a shutout, because as good as Price is, he can’t be good every game facing 40 shots, of which 15 are quality.
While it was a good night for the Habs and most players shone, there was one player who struggled again.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi has had some good moments, but on the overall this season, the second-year forward is not the same player as when he was a rookie. The aspect of Kotkaniemi’s game last season that worked so well for the coaching staff was he controlled the shifts; he was one of the best defensive centres in hockey. His Corsi was 60 percent. So even if Kotkaniemi was having some difficulty around the net, he did so well defensively that he was a net positive for the club.
This season, this is not the case. Kotkaniemi has one of the worst Corsi on the team, with a 47 heading into Thursday’s game. The issue is puck battles. When he loses the puck battle, he loses the ability to clear the puck. Kotkaniemi put on the 10 pounds in the off-season, but it has not made a difference in puck battles.
But this skill is not always about strength. It’s about balance, too. Look at Brendan Gallagher, for example. He is one of the best puck winners on the club and he, of course, is not a big man. So Kotkaniemi’s extra weight has not been a help at all so far. Julien actually called out Kotkaniemi after the Tampa Bay game, saying he didn’t play well. It was surprising for him to say, but it was completely accurate.
The Finn will have to figure this out. Many were expecting a breakout season, but at this point, equalling what he did in year one would be a satisfying result for Kotkaniemi.
After starting the season winless in three straight games, the Laval Rocket are back to respectable. The Rocket won their last two contests: one in Rockport and the other at home against Providence. Ryan Poehling has yet to score but is playing competitively. The big surprise so far, however, is on defence. Otto Leskinen has been the best player for the Rocket. He has four assists in five games, and is playing steady hockey. Scout Grant McCagg feels as if Leskinen could have a future in the NHL. He feels that Leskinen is adjusting well and makes almost no mistakes in his own zone. That would be a huge win for the Habs, if Leskinen could advance his game to that high of a level to join the Habs blue line one day.
In college hockey, after lighting it up with four goals in his first two games, it gets more competitive this weekend for Cole Caufield of the Wisconsin Badgers. The Badgers have their home opening weekend, taking on the defending two-time national champions from Minnesota-Duluth. The Bulldogs and Badgers will play in Madison on Friday and Saturday night. Caufield counted two goals last weekend against talented goalie Spencer Knight of Boston College, then took advantage of some weak opposition to score another two at Merrimack. If Caufield can score this weekend, that will definitely be a strong indicator that he can compete against anyone at the college level in his freshman year.
Caufield has the potential to be the best scorer the Habs have had on their roster in a long time. With his quick release, ability to find the seams and also find attacking dead zones, Caufield is a shoo-in to score on the power play at the NHL level. The question will remain if he can also score 5-on-5, or if his small five-foot-seven-inch frame be a hindrance in winning puck battles and defending adequately.