Two games in two nights for the Montreal Canadiens.
The first two games were played knowing that both Paul Byron and Jonathan Drouin aren’t going to be back in the lineup until likely after Christmas. It will be even longer for Drouin, who needed wrist surgery and is scheduled to return after eight weeks. Byron needed knee surgery and is set for a month’s rehabilitation.
However, one of the strengths the Habs have is depth at the forward position, and they are counting on that depth to carry them.
Note that the Habs are fifth in the league in goal scoring heading into these two key injuries, so let’s see where they are when Drouin returns. Game one of the two back-to-back contests was against Columbus in Ohio. On Wednesday night, the Habs host Ottawa.
For the first of those two games, the Blue Jackets took over late for a 5-2 win.
The thing about hockey is that each player is trying to have a positive influence in whatever way he can. The positive influence that the fans notice foremost is goals, assists, and points. However, even if this seems lost so often, if you get 100 points but have a minus-40 at the end of the season, you actually aren’t doing your club a lot of good with each of the many 6-3 losses your team is involved in.
This is why Corsi is such an outstanding statistic.
It doesn’t measure points, but measures shots attempted so you can discern whether a player is contributing more on the attacking side of the ledger or is defending too much. This is a considerable preamble to suggest to you that Artturi Lehkonen is much more of a contributor to a healthy and strong hockey club than fans will ever recognize. Lehkonen makes fewer mistakes than 90 per cent of the players in the NHL. He’s an extremely valuable player when you need to hold a lead, and always doing the right thing.
Admittedly, though, when you need a goal, he’s not your guy. Lehkonen scored in the first period, showing tremendous finish by one-timing a shot into the top corner from 10 feet for his third goal of the season. He is on pace for his usual 12 to 15 goals on the season.
Fans, meanwhile, are on pace for their usual eight insults to every one moment of praise ratio for the steady Finn. Coaches, GMs, scouts, and everyone in hockey will tell you that Lehkonen is a valuable player for any team to have. The day may come that fans reconcile Lehkonen’s value like they finally have Lars Eller. It took a cup for the Dane for Habs fans to finally acknowledge that he did a lot of things right.
Perhaps it will take a cup for Lehkonen to get the same respect. It shouldn’t, but fans would be glad to put some salt and pepper on that crow, if that’s what it would take.
It was an extremely poor start for Ben Chiarot this season in Montreal. He even admitted that he was having difficulty with the pace of the Habs play. He was asked by his head coach to not go from D-to-D with the pass when he had control of the puck, but to head-man it to a speedy winger as quickly as he could.
Instead, what was seen was Chiarot not being able to think the game quickly enough. It was not looking good. In fact, it was looking so bad that Chiarot was demoted to a third-pair defender for a short time. He would have to adapt, or it would look like a bad contract given out by GM Marc Bergevin.
Fast-forward a month later and Chiarot has adapted strongly, though this was hardly the game to be so glowing. He sometimes gets second line minutes and even has seen first line minutes this season. Chiarot is now looking comfortable in every facet. He’s contributing at times offensively, but more than that, he looks steady in defending in front of his keeper.
The evidence is there in Corsi 5-on-5 numbers, as well. Last season in Winnipeg, Chiarot had a 47 rating. This season he’s a 53. If you’re not familiar with Corsi, this is a significant improvement — Chiarot may be playing even better than last year.
It’s been a crucial improvement as the Habs look to tighten up to get top-12 in the league in goals allowed.
Joel Armia was a first-round draft choice, but through most of his career he has underachieved. If you look at his skill set, he has everything. He has size, good hands and a wicked shot. He is one of the best puck battlers in the league. So why hasn’t he hit the lofty offensive statistics that were expected of him?
It’s hard to know; it’s a mystery. The skill set says 25 goals to 30 goals, yet his best season is only 13 goals.
This year, it’s coming together. Armia has seven goals and is on pace for 28 goals on the year. He’s 26 years of age. Most aren’t aware but that’s the prime of a forward’s career, right around 25 years old. There’s plenty of good hockey left in Joel Armia, and if his progression is not yet finished, this is looking like an even better trade made by GM Marc Bergevin who gave up only Simon Bourque to acquire Armia.
This season, Bourque is playing in Thetford Mines in the LNAH. Last season, he played at Concordia University. The trade was a salary dump for the Winnipeg Jets who couldn’t balance their books properly. One man’s pain is another man’s gain. And these days with Armia, what a gain.
The Blue Jackets took the lead on a terrible goal for Carey Price to let in. It was simply horrible luck. The shot bounced off the dasher behind the net in such a manner that it kicked up and on to the top of the Habs goal, then continued on towards Price where it bounced off his chest and into the net.
You couldn’t create that to happen again if you tried it 10,000 times. So no target should be pointed at Price on that, but it’s fair to cite Cale Fleury. He had the puck at the blue line, but he did not clear the zone. Fleury was robbed of the puck, which allowed the chance in the first place. Fleury has been playing well, but there are many moments in which he’s not respecting the quickness of his opponents at the NHL level. It only takes one extra moment of stick-handling to find a checker on you so fast that you lose the puck.
Fleury will figure it out, but until he does, he needs to have more awareness of when he is the last man back and when an opponent is hunting him and closing in.
Just after the unlucky 3-2 Jackets goal, the 4-2 followed for Columbus on the power play. It was the issue that has been the Achilles heal this season. Montreal is strong in some categories this season, like being fifth overall in goals, while they’re average in others like 18th in goals allowed.
But they are horrible in one facet, and that’s the kill.
The Canadiens are 30th of 31 teams in penalty kill. It’s been talked about many times and the same complaints don’t need to be repeated again here. Suffice it to say it’s still an issue, and it needs to be solved.
It’s interesting to note that after 21 games this season, the Montreal Canadiens are 11-6-4. After 21 games last season, the Habs had a record of 11-6-4.
It’s quite uncanny, the exact same record for the Habs this season compared to last. It should also be noted that at this time last season, the Habs ran into their worst streak of the season. Montreal lost five straight games to take the shine off what was a tremendous start. It was the only five-game stretch all year wherein the Habs didn’t put a win on the board.
They also had a four-game streak without a win at the three-quarter mark.
READ MORE: Habs forwards Drouin, Byron out indefinitely
If the Habs can finish this five-game stretch with positive results, they’ll put a different stamp on this season over the last one. With the Toronto Maple Leafs struggling and on a difficult six-game road trip, it will be interesting to see where the two teams stand overall. If the two clubs continue their current trend, the Habs would put some distance between them that Toronto would have a very difficult time making up, and Montreal would be able to use it toward attaining the playoff spot that was elusive in 2018-19.
It seems early to be speaking of these things, but there’s an old adage in the NHL: where you are at American Thanksgiving is almost always where you end up.