It’s an unusual weekend to be a Montreal Canadiens fan, as the Habs’ two games are both afternoon affairs.
The first was in St. Louis on Saturday, where the Habs tried to take back-to-back wins against the Stanley Cup champions. The second takes place Sunday in Minnesota against a Wild team that is struggling mightily. Two injuries just before the game meant both Joel Armia and Cale Fleury could not dress in Missouri.
The Habs put together a complete effort, though, shutting down the Blues for a 5-2 win.
The lower-body injury to Armia opened the door for Jordan Weal to get into the lineup and he immediately walked through it. Weal got some power play time where he took a pass from Max Domi and slid it home beyond Jake Allen. The Habs are improving on their looks with the extra-man. Only two weeks ago, they were using Shea Weber almost exclusively to blast the puck from 40 feet and hope for the best. Recently, however, they have shown more looks and they’re working.
The other night, Jonathan Drouin was down low and beautifully fed Armia — same look working down low for the tally. Provide enough alternative plays designed down low, and you just might find that Weber has a better chance to score when it is not the only thing that you’re doing.
In the second period, the suddenly strong Habs power play was at it again. The third Habs goal of the day was an absolute beauty, as Jesperi Kotkaniemi got to Weber at the left point, then began to change everyone’s defending angle by skating forward. That caused there to be a cross-ice seam to exploit. Kotkaniemi beautifully kept looking at the goalie then slid it to Drouin on the other side. He one-times a gorgeous shot into the top corner — as beautiful as a goal can get.
The Habs led 3-1 on a suddenly creative power play; Kotkaniemi should be on the power play. Where the 19-year-old is struggling is on puck battles, which he doesn’t often win. He still has the vision and he still makes delightful passes, so find a way for him to be able to use his strengths. That’s when he has more time to make plays, and less battling for the puck.
It’s only natural that Kotkaniemi should be on the power play with his creativity, not Danault. The other centre should be Max Domi. He, too, is creative. It isn’t just manpower though leading this resurgence with the extra man. They’re working the puck down low while the rest of the league keeps taking away Shea Weber, who the Habs aren’t even trying to set up. Brilliant!
GM Marc Bergevin can’t help but love a good reclamation project. Sometimes, it seems half of the roster is someone else’s outcast. Sometimes it clicks huge like Paul Byron, and sometimes it really doesn’t work out at all. One player who continues to shine is Nate Thompson. This is a Los Angeles outcast who is really working well as a Habs forward, a fourth-liner who wins draws and just makes one smart play after another. There’s no offensive outburst to come with Thompson, but the name of this game is to be on the ice for more than against. Sometimes the name of the game is face-offs, too, which Thompson wins more than he loses. Sometimes the name of the game is killing penalties, which Thompson did brilliantly in the first period.
Not everyone is sent out there to get a goal. Sometimes the job is to stop a goal because you’re leading 3-2 — and what you need is Thompson.
The fourth line is a major improvement this season. While Bergevin was not able to fix his defence from one season to the next, he was certainly able to fix his fourth line. There are so many more options than what Claude Julien was forced to use last year. If Thompson isn’t available, he’s got Cousins; if he is not available, he’s got Weal; if he’s not available, he’s got Poehling on the farm. Bergevin did a great job here in one year. It’s interesting to note, though, how much harder it is to find good reclamation projects on the blue line.
Nick Suzuki continues to impress, and he’s definitely finding his way. It’s two goals in as many games for the rookie. Thompson made a perfect pass into clear space for Suzuki, who fired a gorgeous one-timer into the top corner. Suzuki celebrated his second NHL goal like it was his 200th. He’s all business already.
The Habs had a 4-1 lead against the champions. It was a shockingly impressive display.
Jaden Schwartz made an outstanding play as he wheeled and fired from a terrible angle to score on Carey Price. Let’s get that out of the way first.
Now for the criticism: Christian Folin remains soft on his checks this season. Folin does not pass the puck up quickly. He does not offer any offence to the Habs’ attack. Therefore, he must do the one thing that he is supposed to do effectively, and that is to be strong at defensively taking the man and winning puck battles. If you only bring one skill as a defenceman, then you better be excellent at that one thing. You can forgive a defender who brings some attack to his game, but there’s a problem when the defender is continually soft.
Again, that was a talented play, but also, the theme for Folin remains the same. He’s a 6-7 defender, and this was a 6-7 moment.
Cole Caufield is a scoring machine so far as a collegian, and he’s not doing it against easy opposition, either. Caufield has six goals in three short games to start his college career. Of those six goals, two are against Spencer Knight of Boston College — who is probably the best college goalie playing this year — while another two goals were scored against the defending national champions and third ranked Minnesota-Duluth Bulldogs. The final two goals were against Merrimack, and on this one occasion you understand the success, as they are a lower-level team.
Overall, Caufield is showing much more than just finish, too. Caufield has excellent balance on his skates which he absolutely must have playing against bigger men. Just like Brendan Gallagher, Caufield can puck battle effectively considering his size. He stays on his feet and he doesn’t give an inch. One moment against the Bulldogs, his opponent had about eight inches and 80 pounds on Caufield and hammered him. Caufield stayed on his feet without difficulty, though, and kept moving. Very impressive to see a small player play big.
There have been strong performances on the farm recently as well. The Laval Rocket started with three losses and it felt like another ‘here we go again’ moment, but since then, three straight wins have evened their mark to .500. The Rocket beat the Providence Bruins 3-2. Ryan Poehling got the game winner for the Rocket with a slap shot from 30 feet in the third period. Cayden Primeau was outstanding again with a 30-save performance to pick up the win. You love it as a GM when your top prospects are coming through with the top performances of the game.