The Montreal Canadiens are on a seven-game road trip that could make or break their season, and on Tuesday night, the Habs started off the journey on a high note by notching a win against the Vancouver Canucks.
The team’s road trip is broken into two parts: first, a four-game swing through Western Canada, followed by a trip to the south of the United States after Christmas.
Game 1 in Vancouver saw the Habs take on an improved Canucks team, and Montreal put in a complete effort to win it 3-1.
- Tuesday night’s game included 38 saves for Carey Price, but no one will even talk about it. The conversation only revolves around him when he can’t stop 11 two-on-ones during the game. Price was stellar. He has allowed only five goals against in his last four starts.
- Watching Max Domi on the rush with the puck, it seems quite clear that the success or failure in his entire game is based on one truth: if you’re gliding instead of striding, you won’t back any defender up and you won’t find success. Domi was approaching the blue line with his feet moving against Vancouver, and you could see the defenders needing to respect Domi’s speed and accompanying stick skills. So often this season, seeing Domi with his legs planted in the ice and his speed slowing down because of that, you could tell it meant nothing good was going to come of the rush. But watch for it: when Domi is striding and keeping his feet moving, he is dangerous. Conversely, when Domi is gliding, he’s just another small, slow guy who is easy to beat in a puck battle.
- Cale Fleury continues to grow in confidence in his rookie season on the Habs blue line. He is improving on both sides of the puck. His decision-making on defence is coming along very nicely. The bigger surprise is what he is showing offensively at times. In the second period, Fleury made a series of moves that many didn’t think he had in his arsenal. Fleury seems especially skilled on the backhand side of the puck. His best moments this season, including his first pro goal, were backhand attempts. He took it to goal on a backhand in Vancouver and almost tied it up for Montreal. He is looking quite strong. If the progression continues, the Habs will have a bona fide third-pair defender for a long time, instead of someone who is in and out of the lineup, falling back as much as he is rising up. It’s that consistent ability to keep making good decisions and good plays that makes one an NHLer instead of a coach’s decision. Fleury is on the cusp of being third pair for a long time. Nights like this in Vancouver make you think he will get there.
- Tuesday night saw another game in which Ryan Poehling looked like he is going to be a winger at the pro level. Here’s why: as a collegian, Poehling was a puck carrier, a rusher down the middle to win the zone and showed great vision with solid two-way skills. He showed everything that a centre is. In the NHL, it’s interesting to see such a transformation of his game. Poehling isn’t really a puck carrier. He doesn’t really try to win the zone on the rush. However, he’s a big body that can win pucks. When he gets to the corner first on a dump-in, he is a beast to handle. He rushes down the wing, getting the centre’s pass, and takes it hard to goal. Poehling has become a winger. There cannot be many who saw this coming, but he is a winger so far at the pro level. Now, the next step is to get the coaching staff to see him as a winger higher on the depth chart. It feels like his hockey is good enough to warrant more than the single-digit amount of ice time he is getting. It feels like he is more of a winger here than a centre. This actually improves the depth chart for the Habs. Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nate Thompson are the centres. That allows Domi and Poehling to be in the top six or even top nine on the wing, and you have a stronger and deeper hockey club.
- The second leading point-getter on the Canadiens is Shea Weber. He has 11 goals and 17 assists for 28 points. This was not predictable; it’s just not possible to have seen this as a development this season. He’s supposed to be deteriorating because he’s getting so old, everyone keeps saying. Weber is actually a better offensive defenceman than defensive defenceman this season. He’s had his issues in the defensive zone with mobility, but it hasn’t been an issue on offence at all. He’s still got the big shot, but the real shocker is how often he joins the rush. He’s likely been the most active rearguard on the rush of all the Habs defenders. He’s having a terrific season. The plus-minus stat has fallen into some disfavour, but if you still like it, Weber is the best on the entire team with a plus 11. Danault is second at plus nine, which surprises no one. Ben Chiarot is plus eight and third, showing what a good signing he was in the summer.
- Tuesday night’s victory was a monstrous win to keep pace with the pack in the Atlantic Division. Five teams are separated by two points. Only two of the five teams will make the playoffs. It’s going to be a wild ride for the Lightning, Maple Leafs, Panthers, Sabres and Canadiens. The Habs have had an eight-game losing skid, and they’re in this. In a bizarre way, that bodes well for them. No Wilde Goats. They got the job done, and there didn’t seem to be any passengers.
- General manager Marc Bergevin met the media in Vancouver on Monday and held a rather uneventful news conference considering he had called it in the first place. The impromptu nature of the briefing left one believing it could be noteworthy. However, there was very little for anyone to chew on. The most interesting aspect of it was Bergevin continuing to suggest he will not make a trade that sacrifices the future to make the playoffs this season. Many teams sacrifice prospects to make a run for the present season, the latest example being the Arizona Coyotes moving prospects and picks to get Taylor Hall from New Jersey. Bergevin never seems to feel that pressure, even though it would be four seasons in the last five that Montreal misses a chance at the Stanley Cup if he does not make the playoffs this season. GMs have been fired for less, though one does not get the feeling at all that his job is in jeopardy as long as the Habs aren’t embarrassing. The Devils trade caused quite a lot of conversation about whether the Habs could have pulled off such a trade. The truth is they could have. It’s disingenuous to suggest the Habs would have had to give up a Cole Caufield or a Poehling to get it done. The Coyotes prospects they sent to the Garden State were not their best prospects. The Habs would not have been forced to trade their best prospects, either. However, that’s all moot now, so onward and upward, with Bergevin’s plan being to stockpile picks then see who keeps developing to become a star. Bergevin’s playing a numbers game, in truth, with the only numbers he doesn’t seem to care about being how four goes into five.