It was one of those trap games. One of those make-sure-you-don’t-fall-back games; don’t-play-down-to-the-competition games.
The Montreal Canadiens needed to make sure they took care of the task against maybe the worst team in the NHL — the Detroit Red Wings.
Montreal has been playing well.
They’ve come out of their malaise, concentrating first on defence. They do, however, have a bad habit of losing to weak teams.
In fact, they already lost to the Wings this season 4-2 in Montreal’s home opener. In fact — make it two losses — as the Red Wings beat the Habs 2-1.
- Though it was Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot on for the Red Wings goal in the first period, they both were stellar once again. This partnership, when it was initiated, seemed to not have enough skating skill for 2019, but Chiarot especially is showing excellent speed in the last 10 games. It seems as if it was an adaptation period for Chiarot, who has been the club’s best defenceman since the team ended its losing skid. He walked the line during one sequence to avoid his check that was outstanding. It was as good as any skating you will see at the pro level this year. It was beautiful, and many certainly didn’t think he had that level in him. During the last few weeks, Chiarot has been regularly leading in ice time. His partner Weber is joining every rush he can. That doesn’t sound wise considering his frame, but he is getting the job done as witnessed by his high standing among the leaders in goals and points; not only on the Habs but also among rearguards league-wide.
- The improved top pair is just part of the overall change in structure that has the Habs playing remarkably better on defence. It’s hard to believe it is the same team that allowed 13 odd-man rushes against the New Jersey Devils in that embarrassing loss three weeks ago. The Red Wings had only 12 shots in the first two periods, and only 20 shots overall. The players have listened to their coach, who knows how to teach defence. They’ve understood the lessons that needed to be learned the hard way. The club is moving up the rankings defensively. There is hope, though when you struggle to beat the Red Wings, it doesn’t feel like it, of course. But there is hope.
- There were some unusual ice times in this one. Max Domi, who was the go-to forward last season, was just about at the bottom of the ladder in ice time among forwards. And near the top, we may just be seeing an interesting changing of the guard on the Canadiens at the centre position. The leading forward in ice time was rookie Nick Suzuki until the final seconds when Phillip Danault took the honour. Is it possible that the future No. 1 centre of the Habs is Suzuki? That seems like something no one has contemplated overall, but ice times don’t lie. They are the greatest marker that you can find for what the coach is thinking. When Suzuki moves to centre, then leads the forwards in ice time for most of the night, it is because the coach believes in him. It’s because he thinks he’s going to get the job done. This could be an extremely significant moment. Watch for it in the coming games to see if it’s a trend. Someone has to take the torch to hold it high at centre on this team in the next decade. It is not likely to be Domi; it feels more and more that he’s destined for the wing. It was hoped it was going to be Jesperi Kotkaniemi but he has suffered this season, both in play and in health. Remember, though, that Kotkaniemi is only 19 years of age. Danault will always be a No. 1 or 2 at centre because of his two-way game, but the club needs a No. 1 in that classic definition. They need that guy who plays with the best forwards and has the best numbers. Suzuki has the intelligence. He’d have a lot more points this season if his passes didn’t die on the sticks of players who can’t finish his sublime passes with any regularity. Whoever takes the mantle, eventually, the club is now so strong with at least six options in the middle.
- Another rookie also shone in this one. Ryan Poehling did not get a lot of ice time, but he looked strong when he was out there. Poehling was on the wing again, where it might just be possible that’s where he ends up in the long run. Poehling seems to play a different style at the NHL level than he did in college. He is a lot more physical. He seems to find his physicality as his greatest weapon at this level. He also does not seem like a puck carrier through the middle on rushes like Suzuki, who is able to win the zone. He seems more like a first forward, known as an F1, to rush in and win the puck with his big body. He seems more like someone who can battle along the wall to create space for himself and others. It’s been an interesting transformation at this level for Poehling. Perhaps the other parts of the game that he used more at the college level will come later, but for now, Poehling looks like a winger. He also looks like a bonafide NHLer. It’s just going to take a little time, but on nights like this one, the game he can bring is obvious. He has the tools. It’s just a matter of comfort-level that takes some players years and others months. He will get there though. No question.
- The scoreboard. That’s the goat. The Habs played well. They dominated the game. They didn’t get any puck luck. The Red Wings probably had two good scoring chances the entire night and scored on both of them. That’s hockey. There was very little to hate about this contest, except the Canadiens finishers made the Detroit goalie Jonathan Bernier look amazing. The Habs are a good scoring team. They’ve been top ten in goal scoring all season long, but sometimes it just doesn’t roll for you. The heat map shows that the Habs could have scored three to five. They didn’t and fans will have ScoreVision over this one for sure and get hyper negative, but the team played very well.
- However, the bottom line is the points in the standings, so the long-run story is not positive because it’s difficult to make the playoffs when the season is not halfway over and you’ve lost to two of the biggest doormats in the league — the Devils and the Wings — twice each. When you miss the playoffs by two points, it’s those nights that you can’t get back and lament all summer. You can’t go winless at home in four against the Devils and Wings. You can’t. Unless you can, and that’s what the next 50 games are for to figure that out. It’s sure not how it’s usually drawn up, though, losing on a Saturday night at home to a doormat.
- The only real issue with Cayden Primeau up with the Canadiens is the number of games he’ll play. A 20-year-old in the first two months of his pro career sitting on the bench watching Carey Price most of the time is a horrible idea. Primeau needs to play 50 games in his first season for his best development. Enter Marc Bergevin and an impressive plan. The organization knew that Price was going to play against the Red Wings. They knew that the back-up was just going to sit, so they brought up Charlie Lindgren to do just that. For Lindgren, he didn’t mind making an NHL salary for the day. For Primeau, he got a chance to play the Laval Rocket game against the Americans. It didn’t go well for Primeau, losing 5-0, stopping 27 of 32 shots. But that doesn’t matter. It’s games played that counts. It’s getting serious and it’s real shots that count. It won’t be easy to do this all the time naturally as the team also plays road games, but when they are home, what a fantastic convenience to have the Rocket about 10 miles up Autoroute 15. Imagine if the Habs go with Primeau the rest of the way, he gets another 10 games of experience sneaking off to Laval when Price is going to be the starter. This is part of the reason why they moved the team to Laval. And when they aren’t rotating in and out to Laval for Primeau, then they can also rotate players to save money on the cap, which is also not a bad idea, should they be planning an expensive signing in February to improve the team for a playoff run.
- A shout-out to Recrutes Grant McCagg, who said well before anyone even knew his name that Jordan Harris had a chance to be an NHLer one day. It appears that far-flung prediction has merit as Harris continues to be outstanding for Northeastern University. On Saturday afternoon, Harris played the final two and a half minutes of the game as the Huskies were holding on to a 6-4 lead. Harris picked up another two assists as he has equalled his points total for all of last season and we are in mid-December. Harris is heading to the World Juniors to play for the Team USA. It appears he has a bright future and joins a long list of prospects that are hoping to crack that blue line to make it better in the future.