Should the playoffs and the Montreal Canadiens have an exciting rendez-vous in April, it will likely be because the Habs were able to get past either the Toronto Maple Leafs or the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It would seem as if the three spots in the Atlantic Division run through those two clubs and the Boston Bruins, though the Florida Panthers and Buffalo Sabres could also make a charge. That means the games against the Lightning this year are massive.
On Saturday night, Montreal’s seven-game road trip continued with stop five in Tampa with the Canadiens falling 5-4.
- The Canadiens’ resurgence in the standings can be attributed to a number of things, most important being that the team tightened up significantly on defence. However, it would also be wise to consider the improved play of Max Domi, who was struggling for a spell in November. In the last five games, Domi has been on fire with four goals and three assists. He’s played his best hockey of the year, including stellar play in overtime on the present road trip, helping Montreal win games. Domi counted his 10th goal of the season in the first period with a superb shot just under the bar to make it 2-0. Domi is on pace for a 20-goal season. He’s more a passer, so this is an outstanding goal number for Domi, and certainly does not suggest he’s having a bad season as many have suggested. Domi will command a big salary when he re-negotiates with GM Marc Bergevin as a restricted free agent. He deserves a good number because when he is on, he drives the bus for many others. He’s a creator.
- Another player who has had a tremendous resurgence after a troublesome start is Ben Chiarot. When he was signed, many said it was a bad move. Those who said it was a strong signing ended up being overwhelmed into silence. The start that Chiarot had in October did not bring volume to the positive voices, either, as he had a difficult time adjusting. However, as December turns into 2020, Chiarot is playing the best hockey of his career. Head coach Claude Julien continues to lean on him, and Chiarot continues to respond. There can’t be anyone, even Chiarot’s mother, who thought he could be a 30-minute defender. Chiarot is now on the first pair, taking over as the club’s top blueliner. He was not treated like he had that potential in Winnipeg for even one minute. It’s hard to imagine that Chiarot can handle 30-minute games the rest of the season. It’s hard to imagine that he can handle facing the best players on the other team for the rest of the season. But while it lasts, this is one helluva bonus. One would imagine Chiarot will lie somewhere in the 22-minute range when this is all computed at season’s end, but even at that amount, this has been a terrific signing. Where would the Habs be without this player? It’s actually ugly to think of it. He has been that good. This defence is still one left-side player short, and this cannot be argued. If you want to argue it, then one assumes you think a 15th-ranked defence has Stanley Cup potential. The Canadiens need a first- or second-pair left-side defender, but thankfully for Bergevin, they don’t need two on the left side. Chiarot has answered every question asked of him.
- When Jonathan Drouin was injured, the Canadiens were fifth in the league in goals for. Since his injury, the club has dropped to 14th in offence. Not all of this is on Drouin’s injury, because it was obvious they needed to sacrifice some offence to play tighter defence if they hoped to win some hockey games. Still, the injury and subsequent massive dropoff in goals shows that the club needs more offensive players. When the team has to rely on players like Jordan Weal, Riley Barber and Nate Thompson for offence, there’s a problem. Montreal does not have an elite forward. They have to spread it around, and when you have to do it by committee, you need everyone to contribute to the final results. You can’t get by with three or four forwards helping out every 25 games. The Habs either need an elite forward or they need all 12 to be able to add to the final total. Winning championships is about having a top-10 team in both goals for and goals against. You have that and you enter the casino with a ticket that could win. The Habs are middle of the road. They are 14th and 15th in goals for and goals against. That’s what the totals look like when you’re trying to make the playoffs, not excel in them. The Habs are trending correctly, but everyone can see the holes that need to be filled: a top-four defender and some combination of players offensively that gets the club into the top 10 in scoring. One injury cannot destroy a team’s offence this significantly. It’s a long slog, it seems, to the next level. If the Habs miss the playoffs, it’s four years in five. That’s a hard road for a passionate fan base to travel. No one would blame them for their impatience. But this is the path that must be taken. The key is to keep adding, and little by little you arrive.
- Whatever Brett Kulak was able to do in his first season with the Habs, he is unable to do it in his second season. Kulak is just barely an NHL defender as it stands at the moment. He doesn’t make smart plays. He gets caught up ice. He can’t clear the zone. He can’t handle his check. There’s just a whole lot of “can’t” all over the ice. The second pair is suddenly an absolute mess right now with Kulak and Jeff Petry. Petry can run so hot and cold. Right now with Kulak, it’s cold. It’s almost tiresome saying the same thing over and over about how desperately this club needs a much more talented left-side defender, so imagine how tired the GM is of it. It seems harsh to suggest that an entire playoff spot is incumbent on this one thing, but that is entirely how it feels. The Habs desperately need to make this change. If they don’t, it’s another year of “close, but not enough.”
- It was an extremely shaky night for Carey Price. He was not tracking the puck well at all. It’s easy to fault him on three of the goals the Lightning scored. Price entered the contest with a save percentage of .906. He’s trending back to down to .900 on the season. That’s just not even close to good enough, and that doesn’t need a caveat of what his salary is. It’s not even close to good enough goaltending, even if he made under $1 million. A save percentage of .900 does not get a team to the playoffs nine times out of 10. What a mess that the Habs are not getting better numbers this season in net. What a sad mess. It’s nearly impossible to compete effectively with poor goaltending. Price allowed five goals on 30 shots in this one, but it’s not that one figure that matters, or that he has the odd bad night. It’s simply the overall picture, and the overall picture is .903 goaltending, and it’s not even close to good enough. Either he’s Carey Price with every trophy on his mantle, or he is not, and this season looks like he is not. It’s a harsh reality, but this is not an opinion, this is fact. Save percentages are facts. The fact is that Carey Price is 39th in the NHL. If you take the goalies out that have played fewer than 10 games, Price is 35th in the league. The final results of Saturday’s action are not tabulated yet at the NHL, but Sunday will start with Price at around 43rd overall in save percentage. Let’s be honest here: that’s horrendous. Price is a proud athlete. He wouldn’t want you to be an apologist for him, either. He needs to get it together, or the playoffs missed in April is on mid-level scoring, a desperate need for a first- or second- pair left-side defender, and him.
- There is so much consternation over the play of Cole Caufield at the world junior hockey championships in the Czech Republic. It’s not worth your worry. Having success is often about opportunity and Caufield is getting very little of it. He finished his final tune-up for the tournament scoring four goals for the U.S. in a big win over Germany. However, for the first game of the actual event, Caufield found himself with weak linemates and on the third or fourth line. He also is getting only 20 seconds of power-play time. Caufield is a goal scorer and no one is getting him the puck. Caufield creates his best hockey in the offensive zone, but he has had virtually no time in the offensive zone in this event. It’s always true that you create your own opportunity, but in hockey, five players create their own opportunity. It’s rare that one man can create his own opportunity when the others that he plays with cannot. It is even more rare for a finisher to create his own opportunity. The very nature of the word “finisher” tells us the nature of the problem he’s having. He needs to finish something that someone starts. Caufield’s number one skill is getting a cross-crease pass, then finishing it with a quick-release one-timer into the top corner. Again, he cannot do this unless the pass comes. Adding to the mystery of little to no power-play time and suspect linemates are not one, but two more factors to make us wonder even more what the hell the coach is thinking. Firstly, Caufield’s destroyed the records for scoring at every level for the United States. His scoring for the USA surpassed some greats like Auston Matthews, Phil Kessel and Patrick Kane. Last year, in the U18s, Caufield scored 14 goals, blowing up the scoresheet every time he got on the ice. Someone tell the head coach this because he seems to think Caufield is a checker. Secondly, which actually makes this four points in total on the “WTH” scale, is Caufield has played all season long at Wisconsin with Alex Turcotte, putting together a terrific freshman season. You guessed it: he’s not playing with Turcotte despite their chemistry. So yes, Caufield has not shone, and yes, it’s not optimal, but no, you do not need to panic. In fact, you need to calm down. Many players have had amazing world junior championships and done nothing as pros. Many players have done nothing at the tournament and been incredible as pros. It’s a good marker but not a perfect one. At the end of the day, talent needs opportunity to produce results. The talented Caufield hopefully will get more opportunity as the tourney continues. If he does not, it changes nothing. He’s a gifted goal scorer. Give him a chance and he is likely to do that as he has his entire life better than anyone who ever came before him for America.