The five teams in the NHL’s Atlantic Division are within two points of one another. Only two teams will make the playoffs, and three teams will hope for better luck next year.
For the Canadiens, better luck next year is a refrain they know all too well. That’s why every single game in December feels like it’s a game in March.
But on Thursday night, Montreal continued its seven-game road trip with a stop in Calgary, and this one went to overtime as the Canadiens beat out the Flames 4-3.
- Brendan Gallagher gets better with age. When he broke through with his 31-goal season at the age of 25, the feeling was that it was probably a one-shot affair. After 10 the year before, some thought a 31 wasn’t possible again. Instead, he followed it up with a 33-goal season last year, another career-best. With a bad-angle goal in the second period of Thursday night’s game, Gallagher is up to 15 goals on the season. He is actually on pace for another career-high, a 35-goal season. He just keeps impressing. A 35-goal season in today’s NHL is elite. There’s a long way to go and the present pace is going to be hard to maintain, but Gallagher has been surprising everyone since he made the NHL as a diminutive fifth-round draft pick.
- Another player who is shocking the hockey world on a consistent basis these days is Joel Armia. This dream season continues for Armia. He had the best season of his career last year when he scored 13 times. This season, he is already up to 12 goals. Unless there is an injury, Armia is going to have the best goal-scoring year of his career by a monstrous amount. If you can believe it, Armia is on pace for a 28-goal season. Any double-digit number starting with a two would be a breakout year for him. Add that to the fact that he is a different type of Canadiens forward, one who is much more on the body than a lot of his teammates. He’s impossible to take off the puck, and he’s a valuable member of the team just for that reason alone. That he is on pace for a remarkable goal total is a stunning bonus. Quick trivia question: who did the Habs give up to get Armia? The answer is a guy who played at Concordia University the next season. Not a bad trade, all in all.
- Nick Suzuki scored the tying goal in the third period for the Habs, and what a goal it was. He fought hard for his positioning in front of the net, making sure that he was in front of the defender so he could get the centring pass directed at him. Suzuki deftly turned his blade and directed it underneath the crossbar. The Habs forced overtime to earn a point.
- But the Canadiens would not have gotten to overtime without the save from Carey Price late in regulation. Price has been stellar in December. Before the affair against the Flames, he had allowed only five goals in four games. He let in more in this one, but he was challenged more and he was, once again, outstanding. A better Price means a better chance by far for the Habs to get a result.
- Max Domi was flying all night. In overtime, he landed with the winner: an end-to-end rush that was completed with a slapshot into the far corner. What a relief for Domi to score, and what a vital goal it was for the Habs, who continue to be a much better road team than a home team. They bear down and play more disciplined, more inside the system. Domi could play with a lot more confidence now, considering the importance of that goal.
- East-west goals on Price happen pretty much all of the time. He rarely is beaten on north-south points. Let him see the shot, let him get square to it, and it’s rare that Price is beaten. However, make a cross-crease pass on him, make him go hard laterally, and it’s got a good chance of being a goal. It’s not a criticism of Price at all. Every goalie finds it much more difficult to stop lateral passes in front of them than quick shots. With Price, though, this is more pronounced because he is so good north-south. He is so good at facing down a shooter without options and saving the shot. That’s why the Habs are so horrendous at killing penalties. They allow so many cross-crease passes. They don’t seem to have a clue how to close off the seam when they’re killing penalties. The Flames’ second goal was a perfect example of this, as it went tic-tac-toe and Price had zero chance to make the save. The first goal went across the entire length of the crease five feet in front of Price. So if you’re on the coaching staff of the Habs, what about looking at the advanced stats, seeing such a stark contrast and doing something about it? What about enticing shooters to shoot? What about taking away the pass? What about basically forcing the one-on-one confrontation between Price and a puck carrier with only one option? Make him shoot. Play the percentages of your great goalie. It’s been the same problem all year. No one seems to analyze the issues. Take away the opponent’s best option and leave them with their worst.
- Speaking of coaching issues, why are Nick Cousins and Jordan Weal out on the ice all the time? Are they about to find some sort of magic formula that makes them Sidney Crosby and Connor McDavid? Cousins and Weal had the most ice time five-on-five in the first period in Calgary. They’re not that good. Sure, they are fine, but they’re not that good. Cousins and Weal are both on the power play as well. In fact, they were on the first unit. This coaching staff would likely have McDavid on their roster, and at the end of the night, Cousins would lead in ice time by four minutes over McDavid. No offence, Nick: you’re doing your part. There’s no issue with you. It’s just that you’re doing your part, but the coaching staff wants you to do other players’ parts, too.
- Brett Kulak was a good defenceman last season. He was another one of those surprise reclamation projects from the general manager. He had found his role. However, have you ever noticed that where defenders are concerned, those reclamation projects don’t work out in the long run? They all do fine for a while, but they can’t keep it going. Mike Reilly has looked good at times, but he couldn’t keep it going. David Schlemko looked …. actually, check that one. Joe Morrow looked good for a while, but he couldn’t keep it going, either, and Karl Alzner…. check that one, too. Some do fine for a while but can’t keep it going, while others never get it going. This Habs team is obviously shy on the blue line. That was the bottom line as you watched Kulak have a dreadful night in Calgary: the Canadiens just don’t have enough consistent and reliable talent on the blue line. It’s going to be their undoing, though that’s a lot of Wilde Goats for a team that has started out this road trip with two wins. Still, those are the holes, and if they don’t get it done, it’s because they didn’t fill those holes.
- The American World Junior team is in the Czech Republic already for the championships. They are still with 26 players needing to trim to 23 by opening day on Dec. 26. The likelihood is that they cut two defenders and one forward. Cole Caufield of Wisconsin is an absolute lock to make the club. He will be relied on extensively for this American squad. The other Habs prospect is Jordan Harris, who is not a lock, but it does look good for him to make the squad. The expectation is that he won’t be one of the two defenders cut. The Americans have nine rearguards now and will likely trim to seven. Harris has had an outstanding year for Northeastern University, matching his point total from the season before, and there’s half a year to go yet in college hockey. Harris will need to impress in the two pre-tournament games on Sunday against Sweden and Monday against Germany.