The Montreal Canadiens are playing three games in four nights this week, starting with the Arizona Coyotes in the desert followed by the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday and the Dallas Stars on Saturday night. With a mark of 5-4-2, it’s been a win-one-lose-one sort of start for the Habs, and they’d be happy to take two of three on the road trip.
On Wednesday night, the three-game affair started right with a 4-1 win over the Coyotes.
Brendan Gallagher was drafted in the fifth round. What that means is that no team truly thought he would ever make it at the NHL level. Statistically, a fifth-round draft pick becomes a regular in the NHL only five per cent of the time. The Habs were the team who finally took a chance on the diminutive high-scoring winger from the junior Vancouver Giants. Five hundred games later, Gallagher has been the most consistent Habs forward in the last five seasons. A couple seasons ago, Gallagher was supposed to be finished when a Shea Weber slapshot blew him up so badly there are more screws in his hand than there are in a Home Depot.
But Gallagher just does not give up, so it was appropriate in his milestone game in Arizona that he scored, whacking at the puck time and time again until it finally crossed the goal line. It was also appropriate that the goal was scored from one foot out, where this small player has proven size does not stop anyone from fighting his way to the dirty zones to find success. Gallagher notched his sixth goal of the season only 18 seconds into the game.
It was destined to be a difficult night to score for the Habs, as they were playing against the best defensive team in the league. The Coyotes had allowed only 24 goals on the season heading into the contest. Montreal had to play tight defensively and take advantage of any opportunities they could muster. After the first period’s lone goal, Shea Weber fired a slapshot from the point into a wide-open net to make it 2-0.
The net was so empty because Antti Raanta was unable to get back into it after his skate blade fell off. It was only the second goal of the season for Weber in what was likely his best game in October. Early in the third period, another chance for the Habs was converted as Nick Cousins showed again that balanced scoring for the Habs is making a difference. Nick Suzuki sent a sweet pass to Cousins as the rookie continues to show an offensive creativity that indicates he belongs in the NHL already.
Montreal put the game away midway through the third period as Jonathan Drouin continued his outstanding start to the season with his sixth goal, banging away at it after a well-executed two-on-one with Joel Armia. The Canadiens are eighth in the league in goals scored, which is impressive considering there are no bona fide stars on the team. There is simply a lot of consistent talent from one to 12 at the forward position, and every one of the 12 is contributing in one way or another. A game breaker would be beautiful for the Habs’ playoff hopes, but overall, there is no issue scoring-wise for this Montreal team.
Another key for the Habs in this victory was the penalty kill. It was the first good night for Montreal playing shorthanded this entire season. The Canadiens’ penalty kill, successful only 68 per cent of the time, is ranked 30th in the league, while the Coyotes’ have the 12th-ranked power play. The Habs were able to make it a perfect three for three, killing all penalties on Wednesday night. They hunted the puck better than they had all season, keeping the Coyotes’ zone time near Carey Price lower than usual for this year, and Price didn’t have to make any difficult saves while Montreal was a man down.
On a night in which the Habs protected Price as well as they did and won so convincingly over a good hockey team, there are no goats to speak of. The big complaint this season has been defence. Far too many goals and quality chances have been allowed, but this game felt calm and the Habs were in control from start to finish. It was an excellent game on which to build. In the most recent Call of the Wilde podcast, the prediction was made that the Habs could be an 88-point team, not a 98-point team. The 98-point playoff total would be found only with a much tighter defence, a better Price and a better penalty kill. The Canadiens improved in all those areas in Arizona while not sacrificing any offence. It is the exact recipe needed for success, and now it’s on to Las Vegas to see if they can keep it up against a high-scoring team with a powerful No. 1 line to neutralize.
The Laval Rocket had their biggest win of the season on Wednesday. They beat the best team in the league, the Hartford Wolf Pack, who lost their first in regulation play out of 11 games this season. The Rocket posted a 4-1 win at the Bell Centre as Charles Hudon had a goal and an assist. The Rocket were aided by a plus-two on the night from Noah Juulsen, who played his third game of the year after finally getting healthy again. Juulsen has solidified the blue-line corps as the Habs’ American Hockey League affiliate moved back to the .500 mark with a 5-5 and one record. Charlie Lindgren picked up the win, stopping 22 of 23 shots. It was the first night of the season in which one could see the possibility of a much better Laval team. The Rocket dominating the league’s best is a promising moment on which they will try to build in their next contest, which is against the Wolf Pack again on Friday in Laval.