The Habs have already gone eight games without a win once.
Heading into their Thursday night affair at the Bell Centre, the Montreal Canadiens were sitting on a seven-game winless skid. They very much wanted to avoid eight straight without a victory a second time, but the hot Edmonton Oilers were in town, with their number one power play working at almost 30 per cent.
Edmonton owned the third period to come back to win 4-2, and Montreal now has an eight-game winless streak.
It’s a shocking difficulty after last season’s success.
It was no coincidence that the Canadiens didn’t win when Brendan Gallagher was out of the lineup nursing a concussion.
It was no coincidence, either, that they put in their best period of hockey in two weeks together upon his return.
Montreal outshot Edmonton 14-6 in the first period and took a 1-0 lead. Gallagher’s line was on the ice when Montreal scored, as it was Phillip Danault pouncing on his own rebound while Tomas Tatar was driving to the net.
It’s also no coincidence that the Danault line was completely shut down when Gallagher was injured, and roared back to life upon Gallagher’s return. In the second period, Gallagher made a series of moves that led to perhaps the best pass he’s ever made in his career to spring Nate Thompson, who had the goalie beaten completely but then hit the post.
Brendan Gallagher is the engine of the team. Many will argue that the leader is Shea Weber, and it’s true that Weber is an outstanding leader, but where would the Habs be without Gallagher? He’s a buzzsaw even when he returns from concussion, when most players are worried and tentative (see Paul Byron).
At the end of the first period, Gallagher drove hard to the net, creating a chance that was dangerous for the opposition goalie and for himself.
He had that same reckless abandon as if he wasn’t clubbed in the head by the knee of Ben Chiarot less than two weeks ago. He’s a gamer. The expression “gamer” was meant for him.
It’s always a big moment when Jesperi Kotkaniemi flashes some talent.
It’s been a difficult sophomore season for Kotkaniemi, but it must be noted that people need to be patient. He is 19 years of age; he could have played at the world juniors this year, and it would have been his second world juniors while in the show.
Kotkaniemi’s sixth goal of the season was a terrific shot into the top corner. This is a low total, but he had a groin injury for a big spell of the season and a concussion, too. Kotkaniemi’s goal came on a terrific pass from Artturi Lehkonen, who’s making everyone look good these days. Kotkaniemi, meanwhile, is on pace to beat his total of goals for last season and in fewer games.
Kotkaniemi’s ceiling does not seem to be first-line centre, but second-line centre. However, being a teenager still, perhaps he surprises. If he is only a second-line centre, then Nick Suzuki will have to be the first-liner that the Habs have craved for a generation. Either way, the team is finally better situated down the middle than they have been for a long time.
Our role is simply to watch over the years to see who steps up. The good news is that for the first time in 20 years, the Habs have players who can.
The biggest goat for the Canadiens in this one was the inability to convert chances.
The Canadiens played an outstanding first two periods and should have put the game well out of reach before the third period even started. Nate Thompson, for example, had an open net so wide, it seems rather impossible that he didn’t score.
The Canadiens were fifth in the league on offence when things were still going well. They are now 14th in goals for. Sure, they’ve had some injuries, but they have also not finished chances nearly as well for a significant portion of the season. If you keep your opponent around long enough, they’ll likely make a push as the Oilers did in the third period when they suddenly owned the ice, and the fragile confidence of the Canadiens started to show.
This has been a season in which many have fallen in love with Nate Thompson. They have pointed to his face-off abilities and solid two-way play. They have also felt that he contributed on offence.
Let’s throw some light on all of those presumptions. Firstly, Thompson has a face-off percentage of 53. It’s not bad, but it’s nothing to rave about. Just better than half is not exactly earth-shattering in face-offs.
How about that offence? He has two goals in 45 games.
How about that two-way play? He has a Corsi of 48. Again, less than half is not world-beating. It means when you’re on the ice, there are more shots towards your goalie than towards the other goalie.
At this point, he’s taking ice time away from rookies and second-year players who need to improve their games by getting more shifts. This season is over. The future is not Nate Thompson. The L.A. Kings let Thompson go last year because they needed to let younger players get some ice time in their rebuild. GM Marc Bergevin needs to do the same thing now, or soon for his young players. The young players need to play.
In fact, if it is acceptable to be hyper-critical, can no one do the math on what it takes to make the playoffs? It takes a miracle. The team has to go 27 and 10. Considering that impossible feat, would it not be a good idea to not put the fourth line on the ice with three minutes remaining?
Kotkaniemi and Suzuki need to be on the ice in the more difficult situations to learn through experience — not Nick Cousins, not Nate Thompson, and not Jordan Weal.
The college break is over for Americans, so the prospect watch continues again with excitement.
Jordan Harris was back already one game for Northeastern. He got a gorgeous assist on a Tyler Madden goal as the Huskies beat Bentley 4-2. The Huskies next play at New Hampshire on Saturday night.
Cole Caufield is also back from the Czech Republic and will play for the Wisconsin Badgers as they take on Ohio State on Friday night. The Badgers are under .500 on the season and they need to have a strong second half to even make the playoffs. The upside to the Badgers failing towards their playoff goal, however, is that Caufield may want to try his hand at the NHL level already this season. He has indicated his interest in playing for the Canadiens this late March.