The biggest test of the year for the Montreal Canadiens came with the Boston Bruins in town at the Bell Centre.
The Bruins might just be the best team in all of hockey at the moment. Boston was the only team wth only one regulation time loss as they headed into the Tuesday night tilt; Montreal was back home after a solid road trip, winning two of three games. It promised to be a good one, and certainly would provide an opportunity to see where the Habs are right now in terms of their overall game and talent level.
At the end of it, the Habs proved that they belong with a 5-4 victory in what rivalled the win in Vegas as the game of the year so far. It was a thriller at the Bell Centre.
It’s been said a number of times how much Max Domi was falling asleep and on his way to an underachieving career in Phoenix. Never does that sentiment carry more weight than when there is a big game on the schedule at the Bell Centre.
When the energy is in the building, and the fans are pumped, Domi is more pumped, too. When the game is dull against a dull opponent, Domi isn’t at his best either. That’s why, if the Habs can ever get to the playoffs, this kid will perform like he’s the best player on the ice.
Domi was feeling it in this one — just an absolute delight to watch his competition level. He was getting under the skin of the Bruins, taking hard hits and getting right back up. He made a sublime pass to Jeff Petry that led to the opening goal by Victor Mete. That goal doesn’t happen if Domi doesn’t somehow thread that needle across the ice. Domi for Galchenyuk.
No offence to Alex, but has Max Domi ever brought it in the red, white, and blue. He can be signed long-term as soon as Jan. 1. It shouldn’t be long for that to happen, but the longer it goes, the more Domi will be worth, so Marc Bergevin should plan to be hasty.
Many analysts of the game are not enamoured with the plus-minus statistic, preferring instead Corsi, but for those who still see merit in it, there’s a surprising leader for the Canadiens.
Chosen 100th overall in the fourth round, Victor Mete is a plus nine. Mete scored twice in this one, deftly working his way from his point position to pick up a stray puck to fire it past Tuukka Rask, giving the Habs their first goal of the night. In the second period, Mete fired it high from the point where a fallen Rask lost his concentration, paying more attention to a Habs player fallen in front of him than the puck.
Mete had a new partner in this contest in Jeff Petry as Claude Julien changed his pairings. There’s no question that Petry is the new number one rearguard on the Habs, so should he not with those 27 minutes per night have the best partner the Habs have on the left side? Brett Kulak has fallen into disfavour and as a result, their solid partnership is over for now. Petry and Chiarot doesn’t make sense, because Chiarot can’t handle 27 minutes. Mike Reilly can’t handle 27 minutes. The answer is Victor Mete.
There really is no doubt about it when you step back for a second. Mete always had Weber, but that was when Weber was the number one on the right side. This all revolves around the head coach not having much to work with, but wanting to clearly have a first pair that is the strongest on the left, and the strongest on the right. So far, so good, because not only did his first pair have a solid night, Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot had a solid night, too, with fewer minutes and easier match-ups.
Logically, this works. In the long run, few will argue that the Habs need more talent on the blue line, especially on the left side, but working with what you got, this has to be this way with Petry the clear number one now. The side benefit is that Weber’s recovery season after knee surgery can continue with easier match-ups, less spotlight, and more rest.
There’s no shame in that, considering his age and health. The Habs’ weakness is goals against with this having the best chance to keep a problem from getting too severe.
Terrific for Paul Byron to score his first goal of the season, having found some open space and then finding the five-hole of Rask. Byron has struggled to find many high scoring opportunities this season, so when he had an open look, he sure was not thinking of passing. After the goal, the next shifts had more confidence.
A giant weight does lift off a player’s shoulders when he finally gets his first of the season. This is not a cliche by any means — the first means the world. Let’s see if Byron can follow it up. The Habs need his speed to back defenders up. Everyone gets more room when Byron is putting that fear into the opposition.
The line match-up was outstanding to watch: the best line in hockey, centred by Patrice Bergeron of Boston against the Phillip Danault line of Montreal. Both lines were top five in Corsi last season. Claude Julien was hoping for a draw in their five-on-five head-to-head, and he got one. The Danault line is one of those rare entities where the sum of the parts are better than the parts themselves. That’s not to suggest that Tomas Tatar, Danault, and Brendan Gallagher are not quality hockey men — they are — but individually none of the three are classic first line players.
However, when they are together as three, they are upper echelon and 100 per cent first-liners in today’s NHL.
Danault doesn’t have the greatest skill set, but his hockey brain is enormous. He rarely finds himself on the wrong side of the puck, or creating needless danger for himself or his mates. Tatar could not even get on the ice in Las Vegas, but in Montreal, he is one of the most valuable players the Habs have. He has five goals with a goal in this one.
Gallagher, of course, is a terrific complement to the line because his work rate is extraordinary.
When you can create this much chemistry to be one of the best lines in the NHL and you don’t have the skill set of a classic first liner, you are a head coach’s dream. Julien has three guys who play against the best the NHL can throw at them and they play it evenly nearly every night. What a beautiful dream for Julien. Brad Marchand had five points against the Penguins on Monday night; David Pastrnak has a goal per game. Bergeron is the best two-way player in hockey. They played to a draw against Danault’s line who took up an enormous challenge and faired just fine.
Now to our regular feature in the Wilde Goats — the penalty kill.
You can say it is consistent at least. It’s now 14 goals allowed in 15 games to remain one of the worst in the NHL. The Bruins scored on their power play in the first period from the face-off, basically, as David Pastrnak wired it home. Again, not to excuse Carey Price because he did not have a good game, but there is no chance on the cross-ice pass to see that shot and react to it.
The Habs have to stop allowing such clean looks to the game’s best shooters — it’s the only massive issue with the team. There is so much that can come together if the PK figures it out. The defence wouldn’t be middle of the road. Price could get his save percentage up to .925. This horrible PK could be the story of the season.
They need to right this woe. Allowing one goal per game means the five-on-five has to be exemplary, outplaying the opponent every single game.
It was a difficult night for Carey Price. On the third goal, Price had one job when there is a loose puck in front of him from three feet and closer: cover the bottom half of the net, keep the pads on the ice and keep the paddle down to make sure there is no five-hole shot that can beat you.
Price did not do that.
He was beaten five-hole. On the fourth goal, Price again had one job to do as a player is coming from behind the net: make sure that you have the post covered. You have to have the pad and skate against the post. Price left the post and the shot was slid home. Again, on what would have been the fifth goal, Price from in tight had one job to do, and that is to make sure he had the bottom half of the net covered with the action directly in front of him inside three feet. He did not block it off.
Now this goal was disallowed for offside, but the point remains that Price needs to work on this. Shooters cannot get the shot up high from inside three feet. Block off the bottom half of the net. Get big. Get square. Make them beat you high — they won’t be able to. The great thing for Price is this is an easy correction. He simply needs to concentrate on it more. Focus on it. It’s not something outside of a goalie’s talent level. It’s more about concentrating on that particular endeavour. I have no worries at all that Price won’t figure this out soon enough.
Zdeno Chara was playing in the 1,500th game of his NHL career in this one. It was kind of shocking that he received a notice on the scoreboard for the fans to recognize his feat. It was an entirely higher level of shock that he received a warm ovation from the crowd. Some even stood. The odd person booed.
Now, Chara has accomplished much in his career and his skills are to be admired, but he also almost sawed the Habs’ top scorer in half and nearly paralyzed him. He can say he was playing the puck all he wants, but Max Pacioretty‘s nearly-broken back and the puck were 120 feet apart at the moment of contact. Chara’s ovation was on par with the actual head coach of the Habs’ Claude Julien for his 1,200th game behind the bench in his career.
Seems odd that Julien didn’t get the louder ovation. Not the biggest concern at the end of the day, but all in all, it felt a bit strange.