Call of the Wilde: Strong defensive effort for the Habs spells victory over Pittsburgh Penguins

Pittsburgh Penguins' Evgeni Malkin pokes the puck off the stick of Montreal Canadiens' Phillip Danault (24) during the second period of an NHL hockey game in Pittsburgh, Tuesday, Dec. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Gene J. Puskar)

The path to the playoffs for the Montreal Canadiens goes through the Atlantic Division.

Montreal started the night two points out of a playoff spot behind the Buffalo Sabres. The Canadiens had a tough date in Pittsburgh, who, despite dire predictions every year that their time is up, never give in.

In this one, the Canadiens put in a strong defensive effort for a vital 4-1 win.

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There have been many disappointments in the Canadiens’ ranks in the last month, but one player who continues to surprise in a delightful way for the head coaches is Joel Armia.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Canadiens’ vital signs still kicking with 2-1 win over New York Rangers

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Armia now has 11 goals on the season and will, barring an injury, surpass his best season total of 13. Number 11 was gorgeous. He fought off a check from one of the best defenders in hockey, Kris Letang, who just could not handle Armia’s strength. With half of a stride on Letang, Armia spread his legs apart while he skated to block out any attempt for Letang to get inside his shooting circle. Armia then fired a shot into the top corner.

It was a goal scorer’s goal.

There are actually very few players who can do what Armia did on that play. You have to have incredible strength, tremendous balance, and you also need superb finish. Quietly, it was one of the nicest goals of the season for the Canadiens. Armia has always been a player who has not lived up to the potential of his first-round draft pick status.

At 26 years of age, perhaps he’s still going to get there. It’s not unheard of.

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The Habs put 17 shots on the board in the second period. In the first, they were behind the play, looking like they didn’t have much in the tank for the contest. But a completely different team came out after the first intermission.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: A Colorado Avalanche hits the Bell Centre, burying the Montreal Canadiens

Tomas Tatar broke Tristan Jarry‘s record-setting shutout string of 177 minutes for the Penguins with a knuckler. After that it was Armia’s goal. The period concluded with a third goal in the last minute on simply an outstanding rush from Shea Weber, of all people. The giant defender beat everyone for — wait for it — speed, then circled behind the net to complete the wrap-around on Jarry, who must have thought that this was not actually in Weber’s arsenal. That’s a 10th goal on the season for Weber, as he remains in fourth place in scoring for the club. (This is where a comparison to PK Subban goes.)

It was an outstanding period for the D-corps who, in the first period, seemed to have forgotten that odd-man rushes are killers. One of the keys to the Habs’ success is becoming very clear: don’t believe you have to make deep, dangerous forays getting caught up ice in order to create enough offence to win games. If they can believe that three or four goals is a possibility while still playing sound defensively, the results can come just fine.

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That was the script starting in the second period of this one.

It’s extremely difficult to not sing the praises of Nick Suzuki, who is already such a crafty player in his rookie season. In this one, the only issue for Suzuki is that he doesn’t have linemates that can finish very well. Suzuki crafted a sublime pass in the second period, jumping it over sticks to land at the feet of Nick Cousins. He put it in to the chest of the goalie — a perfect pass. Not a giant play over a 60-minute game, but when there are not a lot of players who can do this, and he’s a rookie, the play deserves a big billboard that says, “This kid is going to be special”.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens end losing skid vs. New York Islanders

After Weber, Jeff Petry, and Ben Chiarot these days, it’s a revolving door to decide who is going to fill out the defence. From night to night, it has seemed that no one could consistently get the job done, but this one had a couple of youngsters that put in a strong night.

Cale Fleury is the first of the two. He has put in mostly strong nights as he continues to prove he is the fifth best defender on the club when Victor Mete gets healthy again.

The second impressive defender in this one was Otto Leskinen, who is continuing to gain the trust of the coaching staff with simple, effective play. He’s keeping his errors down and keeping it simple to help the club. He’s not getting a lot of minutes yet, but if he keeps playing relatively error-free hockey, he might just be the surprising sixth defenceman on the club.

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The head coach isn’t looking for offence from Leskinen or for anything special. He just wants clean shifts: dump it out, cover your man and compete hard. Keep your head on a swivel, don’t get lost chasing and find the odd head-man pass. Two young defenders looking better than the veterans: that’s a good recipe, because the upside of the young guys is not yet known and can keep going to bigger, better things.

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The Canadiens were doing so well to make sure that Carey Price was facing north-south shots instead of east-west shots. His numbers are among the worst in the league on cross-ice passes, and among the best in the league when he is set for the north-south shot. When you know these stats, as all the coaches do, the number one priority has to be to defend against the weak pattern: to let Price take the shooter, and as a defender, block the pass.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Boston Bruins hand the Montreal Canadiens another loss

However, just three minutes into the contest, it’s a two-on-one with the partnership of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot getting caught up ice. The pass is not blocked off and Price is left swimming, trying to make an impossible save across the crease five feet in front of him. The Habs were finding success when they cut down the 13 odd-man rushes they allowed against the New Jersey Devils. They reduced that number to zero a couple of games.

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The result? Wins. It’s not rocket science. Make sure Price has direct shots by setting a priority to block off the cross-ice passing lanes — simple. Just do this simple thing. And after that initial error three minutes in, that is exactly what they did.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens lose in overtime to the Philadelphia Flyers

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On the farm, it happens just about every time. The late cuts for a spot in the NHL have the worst time getting going at a lower level — the disappointment of not making the show cuts so deep, that a player can’t find his game through the sadness.

It took Jake Evans so long to get going it looked like he was going to even go to the press box. However, recently paired with Ryan Poehling, another late cut, Evans and the American out of Saint Cloud State are both flying. Evans was nearly last in team scoring, but now has moved into the third position with five goals, 11 assists and 16 points. Equally, Poehling has gone from struggling to finding his game. He is still only at five goals and six assists for 11 points, but that’s a far cry from the struggles he was having in Laval.

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Poehling and Evans are both on the cusp, but still not quite there yet. Riley Barber was the call-up this time, but Evans or Poehling have the best chance when the next injury hits.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Canadiens make it six straight losses, falling 6-4 to the New Jersey Devils

The World Junior Championships are coming soon to the Czech Republic and the Habs will be well represented. The Americans announced their preliminary roster with Cole Caufield chosen along with Jordan Harris. Caufield is lighting it up in his freshman season at Wisconsin with 12 goals already, while Harris in his second season at Northeastern is on the verge of passing his point total from last season — and it’s only mid-December.

The Swedish team has also put out their preliminary lineup and Mattias Norlinder is there as one of their defenders on what looks like a stacked blue line for the Swedes. Along with Norlinder, who has been an absolute revelation this season, Jacob Olofsson also received an invite to camp. Alexander Romanov will be a lock for the Russian team as well. There likely will be a couple of Finns on the squad, too.

Expect seven Habs to be at the World Juniors. It wasn’t that long ago there was only one. The organization is getting stronger, and the results of stockpiling picks should be seen soon.