The Montreal Canadiens are continuing the fight to get back into the playoff picture.
The victory over the Winnipeg Jets just before Christmas was the high point for the team in the last month. They hoped for a repeat performance at the Bell Centre on Monday night, but fell just short 3-2 in a game where offence continued to be a struggle.
Artturi Lehkonen continues to be one of the best Canadiens recently.
You all know the story by now: he’s a terrific hockey player in the two-way game who neutralizes opponents over and over as they try to attack against him. Lehkonen angles defenders off, taking away their options, better than just about anyone in the league.
He’s a hound on the puck in the offensive zone; his decision making is as good as it gets. He won’t ever have a 30-goal campaign, but with the right linemates, he’ll likely have a 20-goal campaign.
At this point, he’s on pace for 18 goals, which would tie him for his best campaign in his four-year career. In fact, this is the best hockey of Lehkonen’s career.
This is the most comfortable that he has been, and it’s certainly the most stable his situation has ever been. He’s clicking with Max Domi and Nick Suzuki — now the best line on the team, with the injury to Brendan Gallagher. That concussion has left the top line of Phillip Danault and Tomas Tatar feeling like they lost their best friend. The two were rolling along nicely, but without Gallagher, they’re struggling to even get a single point.
Lehkonen and his mates have picked up the slack. Overall, though, it certainly shows how one injury can have a trickle-down effect through the entire lineup.
Dale Weise had a strong game. Weise needs to get in someone’s face, finish his checks, put his opponent on their heels when he can, and push the forecheck. He did all of that against the Jets, something the head coach took note of by relying on him more than one would expect. Weise would not be in Montreal if the Habs were healthy, but he’s making the most of his short time out of Laval.
For Ryan Poehling, it should all come together soon. He’s playing a new position on the wing, and doing it well. He’s a good puck battler, makes a lot of strong positional decisions and has a good skill-set with his stick. His breakthrough should be coming soon.
He had a goal that was called back, and that’s how it goes when you’re hunting for the first one this season. Nothing seems to go right, but it should soon. Poehling is simply playing too well to remain stymied. He just needs to keep his head up and remind himself that he is learning in this process, and he is getting more comfortable despite the offence alluding him.
It was also a big night for Ben Chiarot, as he faced his former team for the first time at the Bell Centre. A player always wants to shine in those two games: once in each building. Chiarot shone in both.
In Montreal, he scored on a wicked slap shot to get the Canadiens back in the game, then, with the score 3-1 for the Jets, he fired a wicked wristshot to get the Canadiens back in the game a second time. He also made a terrific play in the third period when the puck jumped over his stick, resulting in a 2-on-1 with only Shea Weber back.
It didn’t appear that Chiarot would be able to catch the forward as he had three strides to make up, but he not only caught him, he played it so well that he stopped the rush, took the puck away, and did not even take a penalty.
It was terrific skating from Chiarot — he’s really been a surprise. The defensive acumen was expected, but the smooth skating was surely underrated when he played for the Jets, and the possibility of an offensive contribution underrated even more.
It’s going to be a tough task for Jesperi Kotkaniemi to become comfortable in the NHL, playing two minutes and 10 seconds in the first period. The memo that the Canadiens have to finish the season with a 27 and 13 mark to earn a playoff spot has not made its way to their front offices, evidently. It may take 26 and 14, or it may even take 25 and 15. Whatever it takes which, of course, depends on the competition, but it’s going to take a heck of a run.
With four forwards injured, there’s no reason to believe that they are close to that run. So why is the future of the franchise barely playing?
Kotkaniemi can’t improve playing two minutes in the first period. Dale Weise had almost six minutes. Weise wasn’t even good enough for the NHL at this time last week. It’s acceptable, at the moment, to rely on the veterans more, but if the Habs are this far out in March, and Kotkaniemi is still sitting on the bench too much while veterans are carrying the load, there’s a big problem.
Kotkaniemi should be getting a lot of minutes. He should be a regular on the power play. Do they not see a bright future for him anymore? Has he lost the organization’s confidence? He’s 19; some struggles had to be expected. If he’s going to improve, then he needs to play much more, though he did see more ice time in the final two periods.
Still, it’s not enough. At 19, he’s still developing all of his skill set, so he needs to develop by playing. He needs the puck on his stick more. The odd thing is that in his limited time, he actually looked very good. He made a solid defensive play in the second period to save a breakaway, and had a sweet little dangle to set up a chance in the first period. His game has been better since returning from injury.
The coach won’t tell you why he only used his 19-year-old — who is supposed to be the future — for only two minutes in the first. That’s the way information is disseminated to the media, or in this case, not disseminated, but it would be interesting to learn what’s going on. Even five minutes in the second period to go with that two minutes in the first period is not nearly enough.
The solution on the left side of the Canadiens’ defence feels like it’s just a contract away.
Alexander Romanov was once again sensational at the World Junior Hockey Championships. When a defender can dominate for two years running against the best of his peers, then it is expected that he will be an uppe- echelon player in the NHL.
Romanov remains in the KHL while the Habs GM Marc Bergevin continues to court him, so he will arrive sooner rather than later. Bergevin believed that Romanov was an NHL defender even last year, so he must be very excited to bring him to Montreal. Fans should have faith that Romanov is a second-pair defender when he starts here, and judging by his play for Russia, it is not far-fetched at all to think that he has first pair defender potential.
The club has so many great prospects on the blue line, with Romanov the most ready to crack the lineup as soon as next season. Some nights it must seem as if there is no end to this misfortune, but better times are coming.