With three wins in their last four, it seems as if the Montreal Canadiens are over their malaise. However, they need to consolidate their gains and prove that a corner has been turned.
The Ottawa Senators would be that perfect test. The expectation is that a team on the mend beats the Senators, especially when the Sens beat Montreal during the eight game winless run.
After heading into overtime, the Habs prevailed, 3-2.
Much has been made of the struggles of Max Domi.
He’s trying to make his way at centre when it’s becoming clear that Nick Suzuki is the centre of the future there, and Domi will likely need to go back to the wing. For now, though, the discussion doesn’t need to revolve around wing vs. centre, but Domi strong vs. Domi not strong.
In the first period, Domi’s work on the power play was outstanding. The puck followed him around, he made crisp pass after crisp pass, then finally one connected perfectly, as he threaded it to Nick Cousins in front of the net. All Cousins had to do was tip it home.
This is what Domi can do. He’s more a passer than a shooter. In the second period, on the power play, he was still passing, but the Habs weren’t shooting for some reason. Tatar passing good looks wasn’t Domi’s fault. Finally, in overtime, Domi again made a gorgeous pass to Ben Chiarot on a two-on-one, and he had a wide open net to put the Habs into the win column.
This is what Domi does best. He passes; he has vision. Domi’s goal total last season was an anomaly, but he can still produce at 60 to 70 points. He still is a valuable member of the Habs, and Marc Bergevin needs to sign him as soon as he is allowed to in the new year. He has an opportunity to sign him for a good price when, during Domi’s break-out year in 2018-19, Bergevin may have overpaid.
Ryan Poehling played his best period of the season in the NHL in the first. Poehling had a particularly good shift at the end of the first, when he tracked the puck beautifully. He made two passes that had the chance to be converted for goals and also won two big board battles.
In the third period, Poehling had a glorious scoring chance with an open net, but he couldn’t get a clean stick on it. Poehling seems to be playing with more confidence since playing so well with Jake Evans in Laval. He will stay up, if he plays like this every game.
A lot of time is spent at the Call of the Wilde extolling the little things that Nick Suzuki does that show he’s going to be a strong NHLer, but not much is spent extolling the same from Philip Danault.
It’s a long time now that Danault shows all the Selke nominee actions that make him one of the best two way centres in the league. It seems it’s necessary to speak of his Corsi numbers every time he’s praised this lavishly, because so few who aren’t Habs fans have any idea just how good Danault is on the defensive side of the puck. During the eight-game malaise, the line struggled. Brendan Gallagher, Tomas Tatar and Danault are back playing much better hockey in the last five games. In fact, Gallagher’s four-game scoring streak ended in this contest.
The Habs went into the contest with their backup goalie having won only a single game all season.
Keith Kinkaid and his .870 save percentage got only a single victory. Then, in came Cayden Primeau, hoping to do better. In his first start, it was a loss. In his second start, he looked much better. He wasn’t nervous looking at all. He was sharp and solid — and he was also busy. In the first 60 minutes of the contest, Primeau faced 37 shots and stopped 35 of them. An excellent night for him.
It should be said again that he needs to play. He needs 50 games this season, his first as a pro. He doesn’t need to be a backup playing only 20 this year. However, it also needs to be said that he was rock-solid and was key in the Habs getting the contest to the extra five minutes.
In overtime, Primeau got his win — a first in his career. That’s what we call a meteoric rise. From seventh-round draft choice with not many thinking any sort of career was available, to two stunningly good years at Northeastern, to the NHL at the age of 20, to his first win in only his second game. Some things are going wrong still in the organization, but man oh man, some thing are also going right.
The Habs are playing much tighter hockey, and considering the intelligence that they are playing with, it’s difficult to find many faults. But there is one that’s irritating.
On the power play, it doesn’t ever seem that the coaching staff likes the best players. For example, Jordan Weal. Why? He doesn’t make plays, nor does he ever try to get the puck into tough areas with passes. He chooses the simple play, every single time. Weal on the half wall, back to the point — every time. He doesn’t take a man on and he doesn’t try a difficult play. Why is he there? Where is Nick Suzuki? How can Suzuki not be there more often?
At least Nick Cousins is working his butt off in front of the net, which has led to some success for him. Cousins isn’t a classic power play guy by any stretch, but he does the dirty work that’s required. He screens the goalie, and he takes a dozen cross checks in the back every power play. That’s a worthy accomplishment.
Otto Leskinen has been improving on a nightly basis for the Habs, but he wore the goat horns in the Senators tying goal. Leskinen had the puck and he had an opportunity to clear it cleanly, but he was flat out stripped of it, and his mistake directly led to the 2-2 tally. Leskinen has been good, but things happen extremely quickly at the NHL level, and with six minutes left to play, you’ve got one job – clear the puck over the blue line when it is on your stick; not stickhandle three times. That play is not available with a one goal lead and time running down.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi appears to be more injured than previously thought. He was slew-footed and fell violently on his head, twisting his neck at the same time. Initially, the Canadiens reported only that Kotkaniemi had a concussion and he would be out of the line-up from day to day. They’ve now put the 19-year-old on injured reserve. If Kotkaniemi had only a concussion, this would not ordinarily be done, because a concussion can feel better the next morning. There is no timetable on a concussion. He could have been available against the Senators for this game, for example, if he woke up Wednesday morning and the symptoms were gone.
It’s clear the Habs are being extremely cautious here, which is certainly commendable. Let’s all hope, for the young man’s sake, that the caution here is only that of a concussion and not anything more that he may be suffering.
It seems Joel Bouchard just might be achieving his goals in Laval. The team is winning more, but that isn’t necessarily t his mandate — though a playoff spot sure would be an added bonus this season for the fans north of Montreal.
The real achievement is how players look after stints with him in the American Hockey League. Victor Mete was the first player who came back with much more confidence, but at the time, it looked like a simple one-off.
But it keeps happening.
Players under Bouchard keep looking better, finding their game, gaining in confidence, and becoming NHLers. Cale Fleury spent a year with Bouchard. His development is shocking as night after night, he is better than the NHL veterans that he’s beating out for steady work. Otto Leskinen wasn’t supposed to be here, but in the first period, he was getting more ice time than others on the blue line, and he deserved it as he is playing steady and smart. He is winning the coach’s confidence.
Finally, add Ryan Poehling, who came back from his stint in Laval looking far better than he did before he went down. Poehling played his best period as a Hab this season in the first period. His last shift of the first, he was the best player on the ice, tracking and attacking the puck beautifully.
That’s a lot of players that Bouchard seems to be improving. It wasn’t that long ago that a player went to the American Hockey League and never came back.