Eight is enough. Eight is more than enough. Eight is, in fact, embarrassing.
The 2019-20 Montreal Canadiens are facing some of the worst moments in the 110-year history of this proud franchise. And no one could have seen it coming. Not many saw the New York Islanders as one of the best teams in the league this season either. The Canadiens were forced to face a solid and strong hockey team trying to end this season-destroying slump.
Montreal finally turned it around with a 4-2 win. The Habs nightmare is over… at least for two nights anyway.
- Saku Koivu looking on during Captain’s Night at the Bell Centre must have been pleased with what he saw from the Finnish Line again. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia and Artturi Lehkonen continue to look good together. It seems odd to suggest anything could come out of an eight-game losing run, but the line has been a bright spot — perhaps the only one. Lehkonen seems to have more confidence than he has had. He is keeping his legs moving on the attack. His work rate is even higher than normal. Joel Armia is a monster when he carries the puck. He is immovable. He’s the best on the team by far, and one of the best in the league at puck battles. And it seems that Kotkaniemi is improving his game with the comfort of some compatriots to confer with and learn from. The line should stay together. It seems to benefit all of the individuals. That’s what a good line does. It’s better as the sum of the parts than the actual parts.
- On Captain’s Night, when the Habs captains were honoured before the contest, there was one who stood out as missing. Jean Béliveau may have been the greatest captain of them all. He sure was the classiest of them all. So when Phillip Danault scored with 0.6 of a second left on the clock in the first period, Danault was quick to reminisce about the great number four saying that goal was for him. It was for everyone who needed a good moment at the Bell Centre. The Habs had put in a solid first period but had nothing to show for it. They needed that moment. Both the Danault line and Kotkaniemi line had solid sustained pressure in the offensive zone for 40 seconds a shift. That is the best improvement you can hope for besides all of that pressure also ending in a goal.
- A second Habs goal finally did come, from a player you might have expected to produce. Brendan Gallagher in front of the net causing havoc to the goaltender with his stick in his eye line, then after part one worked, Gallagher jumped on a rebound to slide it in easily for part two. Gallagher with a massive moment for his team-leading 11th of the season. Gallagher can nearly always be counted on. It doesn’t matter how bad the slump, Gallagher isn’t hurting the cause.
- Another player in on the second goal was Shea Weber, who took the rocket slap shot. Weber takes a lot of heat because there are moments he does not look fleet afoot, but the heat is exaggerated by the fact he was traded for a player who was as popular as any in the last 20 years in Montreal. Step back for a second to look at the numbers of Weber: he’s second on the team in scoring with 23 points. He’s near the top as well in goals with nine on the season. And overall in the NHL, Weber is fifth in the league in points. Fifth is quite an achievement for a player slowing down so much that he should have retired three seasons ago. That’s what we keep hearing anyway, right? Maybe that narrative Weber is done is popular for the wrong reasons. Something to consider.
- It’s been enjoyable over the last year to contemplate who the leading young gun is with the Canadiens. Jesperi Kotkaniemi got off to the best start making the NHL when he was barely 18 years of age. Ryan Poehling got the second crack at it scoring a hat trick in his first NHL game. Nick Suzuki usually came third in balloting by fans on who was going to be the top young gun. Now, there is no question that he is the number one prospect. In fact, he plays with such maturity, intelligence, skill and vision, that he can’t really be called a prospect. He’s looking like a veteran. There are so many smart things that Suzuki does. He’s had his moments defensively when he has dogged it coming back, and it’s been costly. However, this is not a true negative. Simply tell him, teach him, watch him stop doing it. Simple. The only negative is easily teachable. The thousands of positives you can’t teach at all. Suzuki is looking like he will be a tremendous pro. These pages have had him peak out at 70 points, but it might just be that he is a point-per-game player when he gets older, and stops deferring to veterans as if they will get the job done. Nick, it’s you, Brother. It’s you who will get the job done.
- The road to turning this around is paved with good defence. The Canadiens are just going to have to hope that concentrating on defence and playing with a much stronger defensive structure (that includes far fewer pinch-ins and fewer defenders joining the rush) is not going to crater their offensive output. If they remain 29th in the NHL in goals allowed, they’re going to lose a ton of hockey games. They have to change that number drastically, or there won’t be any playoffs to speak of, for sure. It has to be defence, defence, defence. If you want to finish top 16, then you better finish top 16 in goals allowed. Get ready for less exciting hockey. Get ready for low-event hockey. Get ready for games that Carey Price doesn’t have to stop any odd-man rushes; never mind 13 like against the Devils. Against the Islanders, the Habs gave up very little. Montreal didn’t give up a single breakaway or 2-on-1. There are no Wilde Goats, because they executed this plan. It’s clear the entire structure has had to be changed. It’s clear that Claude Julien has had to teach a different system. It’s been working since New Jersey. Doesn’t change the talent level in key spots, but at least they are playing in a way that gives them a chance.
- After a .891 season, there were, rightfully so, a lot of people were wondering what Marc Bergevin was doing signing Keith Kinkaid. He had a terrible season, and there wasn’t a lot of reason to think that he could do any better than Antti Niemi as the Habs back-up. Sure enough, it was a poor signing. The save percentage of .891 has turned into a .875. It’s a brutal number. It’s not an NHL number. In fact, the Habs management realized it too, and sent Kinkaid through the waiver wire, where to no one’s surprise he was not claimed by anyone. Kinkaid is now in the minors where the Habs are hoping with a lot more action in the net, he can find his better self again. He was a solid .913 when the New Jersey Devils made that surprising playoff run on the strength of a career year from Taylor Hall. For now, Cayden Primeau takes the back-up role which makes no sense whatsoever considering where he is in his development. Primeau needs to play games. He doesn’t need to be backing up Carey Price right now at the age of 20 in his first pro season. This can’t last long in any capacity for either of the two goalies. The club hopes that Kinkaid can play all the games for a couple weeks then bring him back to Montreal. In the meantime, Primeau missing action shouldn’t be too impactful.