The Montreal Canadiens have gone on two winless skids of eight games in the same season.
After a 96 point season, this did not seem possible in 2019-20, but that is where the Canadiens were as they travelled to stormy Ottawa trying to make sure eight didn’t turn into nine.
It was a tight contest going to overtime — but the Canadiens won it 2-1.
- In the last minute of the first period, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Artturi Lehkonen and Nick Suzuki accidentally were on the ice together because of an incomplete line change. It was the most promising minute of the season in some respects. They played superbly together. These three intelligent hockey players darted in and out of traffic, seeming to have a read for each other immediately. There is a feeling for fans and media alike that when a team loses eight-straight games, there could not possibly be a future of success, but that was the future right there for one beautiful minute. The Canadiens have looked for a first line centre for more than 20 years and they have still not found one. If there is one in the organization right now, it is Nick Suzuki. Suzuki has a vision of the ice that is exactly what a centre requires. He has passing skills as well. He has a brain for the game, too. In fact, all three on the ice in that last minute have an excellent hockey brain. Kotkaniemi is always in the lane reading the play well. And if Lehkonen’s hockey hands matched his hockey brain, he would score 50 goals. The future does look grim when the score line is “Opponent 3 Canadiens 2” every night, but, in truth, the future is bright and real. Look no farther than that glorious last minute of the first period.
- To overtime for the real excitement with two tremendous moments. Shea Weber was just not in a mood to be kind in this one. He wanted to do some damage with his size, and did on two occasions. The hit in the overtime on Jean-Gabriel Pageau was so powerful, you could hear the boards shake in Montreal, and the game was in Ottawa.
- The second moment of absolute joy for Habs fans, and the Habs players themselves, was the overtime winner. The excitement of Ilya Kovalchuk was both amazing and shocking. This Russian hockey player, who has scored 437 in his career spanning almost 20 years, acted as if he scored the most important goal of his life. He celebrated like it was Game 7. The shot was perfect on the two-on-one as he went far side for the winner. The players poured off the bench as if no one has told them that the playoffs are out of reach. The eight game losing skid is over. The Canadiens won a hockey game. Sometimes you wonder how much a player like Kovalchuk, in the twilight of his career, cares about the proceedings on a team that is suffering to win even a single game every dozen. Then he comes through with a goal, and you feel stupid that you could have ever doubted that playing this game, being in this world is everything to them. It is like drawing breath to them.
- The head coach of the Canadiens Claude Julien is too traditional in his handling of a team’s hierarchy. There always is some pecking order in punishment, but with Julien, it is so severe that the veterans begin to think they will never be punished whatever their transgressions, while the rookies believe they’ll be punished severely for the smallest mistakes. Case in point is recently Cale Fleury made a big error that cost the Habs dearly. Fleury was at the opponent’s blue line and the puck jumped over his stick resulting in a breakaway the other way. The next game Fleury didn’t even play. This for a mistake that could have happened to anyone. The puck jumped over a stick. This is not a player’s decision that led to the error. It was a disagreeable puck. Contrast that with Nick Cousins who in the first period took a stupid penalty which actually is a player’s decision, then was right back out there for the next shift. Veterans have a longer leash. They should. They’ve earned it. However, Julien’s leash is simply too long. When it is dangerously long, players take liberties, and the locker room can get unfocused.
- Two games in a row that Nate Thompson had a chance to put the ‘W’ on the board for the Canadiens. Two games in a row that he had an open net with a chance and he missed. On Thursday night, he had the deke already done and the 24 square feet was his, but he missed. On Saturday night, a terrific play with three minutes left in a tie game, Ryan Poehling makes a terrific pass to Thompson who is only seven feet in front of the goalie with a wide open net again, and again he misses. Games are won and lost on talent. It’s such a simple thing to say, but this is how it works. If you have a talented player on the ice there, he scores. If you have a less talented player there, he may not score. Then you may not win, and you may not make the playoffs. Sure, there are injuries, and there is puck luck, and there is fatigue, and there is coaching but at the end of the day, trade all of that in for some talent. It’s talent that gets it done.
- There are things in the world that are nearly impossible to understand. One is how this organization treats its best prospects. Josh Brook played for Canada last year at the world juniors. He also had a tremendous campaign in the Western Hockey League. Brook was a second round draft choice for the Habs. He has a chance to be an NHLer. Brook needs to play a lot of minutes. He needs to play on the power play as well. He needs to learn at the pro level. What happens instead? In the last two nights for the Laval Rocket, he did not even play. They benched a prospect, so on Friday night Christian Folin could play. On Saturday night, they also put Brook in the press box, so Karl Alzner could play. How in heaven’s name is Josh Brook going to improve at anything in the press box, but eating popcorn and hot dogs? This is the height of inanity from the Habs. Who can imagine a reason, for the life of them, that they could be so impossibly daft? One presumes the usual cliche that he needs to get a look at things from the press box would be the answer. That’s a lousy answer that has never made sense. You improve from playing. In the press box, you lose your confidence, and belief. Perhaps the Habs have lost their belief in Brook which is equally inane as he has played only a half season at the pro level. Some weakness is thrust upon you. Some weakness you thrust about yourself.
- The prospects continue to do extremely well for the Canadiens. Cole Caufield with a big game for the Wisconsin Badgers on Saturday night as they took on Ohio State in Madison. Caufield had an early assist, then in the second period, he fired an absolute laser into the top corner. Caufield is not a player who looks like he’s doing a lot until you look at the scoresheet. He is not big, so he ends up not being a puck winner, or a puck carrier. What he does beautifully is find dead areas for teammates to pass to him, then he fires his customary rocket into the top corner. The more you watch Caufield, the more you realize that he is all about his line mates. At the world juniors, Caufield did not get a chance to shine. He did not play with the best players and often found himself on the fourth line. He also had almost no power play time. Caufield needs to be on the power play. That’s where the extra ice is for the small man to get a chance to fire his perfect shot. Caufield also needs a centre with strong vision. He does not succeed by himself. He succeeds because someone finds him in the quiet zone for him to then one-time a shot. Lucky for the Canadiens, they have young centres who can grow with Caufield. It is easy to see Caufield getting sweet feeds from Nick Suzuki. Their partnership would be a natural. The line would need someone to go win the puck on the forecheck though. A puck winner, then a passer like Suzuki, and a finisher like Caufield would be a tremendous line for the future. It would be exasperating, if Caufield didn’t get big minutes on the power play. It is, in truth, his make or break. Without a chance playing with the extra-man, it is easy to see him not finding early success in the NHL. He has many quiet minutes at the college level, but then suddenly it is in the net when he has any room on the ice. It was no coincidence whatsoever that Caufield’s best moment in the Czech Republic recently was 3-on-3 hockey in overtime with Alex Turcotte, his line-mate at Wisconsin, feeding him the perfect pass for him to roof the one-timer for an American win. This is how he will find success at the NHL level as well. But the key is he needs to play in open ice situations, and with a visionary at centre.