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Call of the Wilde: Five goals for Montreal Canadiens not enough to beat Florida Panthers

The puck gets past Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price as Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov scores during the first period Sunday, Dec. 29.
The puck gets past Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price as Florida Panthers center Aleksander Barkov scores during the first period Sunday, Dec. 29. AP Photo/Lynne Sladky

It was another four-point game for the Montreal Canadiens and a finish on the wrong side of the win column as the Habs continue to fight for a playoff spot.

The Canadiens suffered a difficult 5-4 loss to the Lightning in Tampa Bay the night before.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens fall to the Tampa Bay Lightning

Though the road trip has been a success with three wins in five games, stop six would be important to their fortunes come March and April. The Florida Panthers won it 6-5.

The Canadiens scored nine times in two games in as many nights, yet lost them both.

Wilde Horses 

Finding your way through a rebuild is difficult. There are plenty of teams that have languished for years trying to rebuild out of the basement. Case-in-point is the opposition on Sunday night. It seems the Panthers have been rebuilding forever. The Buffalo Sabres also have been looking for that elusive playoff spot for years and years.

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The Canadiens are finding it rough-going, trying to amass enough talent to finally finish among the top eight in the east. It takes talent and you only get there when you keep accumulating it beyond what you thought you could have possibly needed. That’s why the emergence of Nick Suzuki is massive to the Habs fortunes right now.

READ MORE: Londoner Nick Suzuki named OHL’s Most Sportsmanlike Player for 3rd time

It appears Suzuki is really going to be somebody in the NHL. He has eight points in his last five games. He’s starting to be used for his skill set. Head Coach Claude Julien is using the rookie on the power play and killing penalties. The next step is having him playing the centre position, but there’s no hurry on that. He’s finding success doing what he is doing and that’s accumulating points, and getting more comfortable.

The question becomes what is the ceiling of this player? And the answer is getting higher and higher. It’s starting to look like he is potentially a point-per-game player. The last time the Habs had a point-per-game player was 2008 when Alex Kovalev had 84 points in 82 games. So this is one lofty prediction to make, but it’s possible. He was a points machine in junior. He is looking like a points machine at the pro level. It won’t happen next season, or likely the one after that, but it is a worthy prediction for Suzuki in year four at 23 years of age.

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Looking at the club’s roster, it’s Suzuki that has the best chance to do a point-per-game. His vision is impeccable out there. His smarts are at a shockingly high level for a rookie. It’s difficult to feel good about the Habs with a weekend of losses, but playoff spots are about emerging talent, and this kid is emerging rapidly.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Montreal Canadiens hit new season heights, dominating Winnipeg Jets 6-2

Another hot player, offensively speaking, is Max Domi. He had a rough patch offensively, and the doubts were high from a lot of different sources, but he’s found his better self again. Domi has scored goals in five straight games. He’s now on pace for a very impressive 24 goal season.

Anything resembling 20 goals in April, and it will be another successful season for Domi showing that he definitely has elevated to another level since his Coyotes days. Another building block to a better Habs team is Domi. Keep building the foundation. That’s all you can do.

READ MORE: Max Domi hoping to inspire with new book

Jesperi Kotkaniemi has had a rough campaign. He wasn’t able to skate well for quite some time due to a groin injury. He finally got back into the line-up only to be slew-footed to the ice receiving a serious concussion. Back now, skating well and seemingly healthy, Kotkaniemi has shown flashes this weekend — two goals in two games.

His defense has surprisingly been suspect, but then again, whose hasn’t this weekend? His offence looks good. It was good to see him get some opportunity on the power play as well. He made it look easy for 6-4.

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Building blocks, People. Keep building the foundation.

The Canadiens drafted third two years ago for a very good reason. They had a lot of foundation to build. Offensively though, this team will be fine. They have at least six players who are still improving offensively, and they’re already Top Ten in offence: Suzuki, Kotkaniemi, Domi, Drouin, Gallagher, Armia, Danault, and Lehkonen. These are all players who have more in front of them than behind them. The offence of the Habs is going to be strong for years. Don’t believe there is no hope — there is a lot of hope, but there are also holes to fill defensively.

Wilde Goats 

It has to be pointed out again. It simply has to, because there’s just no playoffs without the Habs improving their ability to keep the puck out of the net. You can point out all you want how unlucky someone is or how talented the forwards are from the other team, but they are all just excuses to mask the simple truth — that collectively the Habs can not defend well enough.

You may want to point your finger at Shea Weber, or Jeff Petry, or Victor Mete, or Brett Kulak, or the goalie Carey Price, it does not matter where you prefer to point. The fact is the team can not defend. Bottom ten in the league in goals-against will not be a playoff team nine times out of ten and that’s where the Habs are.

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READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Montreal Canadiens fall to the Edmonton Oilers

Here are the ugly numbers for the goalie again in this one. Price allowed five goals on the first 21 shots of the game in 40 minutes. Early in the third, Price allowed a sixth goal on 22 shots faced. That dropped his save percentage to .901 on the season. That is 50th in the NHL.

Fans have wanted to suggest that there are a number of factors to this that go beyond save percentage, and if you want to go there, then let’s do that. There are advanced statistics like Corsi for players, but these are for goalies. These stats try to even out the quality of the shot and the quality of the team that the goalie plays for. The best advanced stat is GSAA (goals saved above average) as it takes the league average of shots faced and computes it on a comparison scale among all goalies. It is compared to WAR in baseball which is a very widely respected advanced stat.

The sad news is Price is 50th in the NHL on this metric as well.

READ MORE: Montreal Canadiens goalie Carey Price surprises young fan at NHL Awards

The best advanced stat for Price is called Quality Starts Percentage which measures how many of the starts are deemed to be of quality based on being better than the league average in shots saved. It’s a fairly abstract advanced stat, and it places Price at 26th overall.

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The truth is whether you want to refer to old simple stats or new advanced stats, Price is not shining this season. Fans want to be forgiving, but the statistics will not allow it. He will need to turn .901 to at least .915 or this season will be another season of failure missing the playoffs.

They’re building the foundation, but they are not building it enough in 2019-20 unless there is a turnaround for the goalie and the defence in front of him. The Canadiens are seventh-worst in the league in goals allowed. That is never going to be good enough, whoever you feel like blaming for all of this.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Montreal Canadiens beat Calgary Flames in overtime

Wilde Cards 

The player of the game for Russia in their loss to the Americans on Sunday was Alexander Romanov. For the second straight year in the World Juniors, the Habs second-round draft choice has been dominant. He was awarded the best defenceman of the event last year, and he might just win it again this season. Slava Fetisov is the only defenceman to ever win the best defenceman award twice at the World Juniors. Romanov is a huge talent. He is extremely difficult to play against as he will hit you from anywhere on the ice. He has a hip check that is going to scare a lot of people to think twice about trying to squeeze through along the wall. Romanov makes nothing but smart decisions at the world juniors.

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The Habs have a massive hole on their left side of the blue line that G.M. Marc Bergevin would love Romanov to fill. Bergevin visited Romanov in Russia last month to get a good measure of when he might come. The latest word from Bergevin is that they are shooting for next season. He says that he could definitely be an NHLer already.

They are extremely high on him. However, there are also stories out that the Russian may re-sign to stay in the Kontinental Hockey League. It’s hard to know how much weight to put on these stories. It’s hard to know any of what is going on in Russia. Fans would love to know definitively when Romanov is coming, but that answer is simply not available right now. Bergevin can’t tell you. The Russians won’t tell you. The best defender at the WJC does make it to the NHL and shines brightly just about every time, so you should not expect that Romanov is any different. Just like Thomas Chabot, Rasmus Dahlin, Drew Doughty, Erik Karlsson and many others, expect Romanov to be a solid NHLer. Expect the Habs to be significantly better with him in the line-up … if and when he comes.

Cross your fingers.