In a season with the Montreal Canadiens having little left to play for, in this game, at least, the Habs had something to prove.
After last night’s loss to the Chicago Blackhawks at the Bell Centre, the Canadiens had to be better against the Flyers in Philadelphia — or something big was likely to break.
When the efforts are consecutively horrible and it does not seem anyone cares, someone has a chance to pay for it in a long-term way.
That made this a strangely important game — not necessarily in the result, but at least in the effort — and Montreal did put together a tremendous effort, beating a hot Flyers team 4-1.
- Artturi Lehkonen takes so much heat for not being a finisher, but with his 11th goal of the season on a gorgeous deflection in tight, the Finnish winger is on pace for the best season in his career. Lehkonen is set for a second 18-goal campaign if he can maintain what he has done until now. That’s a fantastic number for a player who the club loves for so many other reasons like his 200-foot game. Lehkonen also has the ability to be put on every line and look right at home. He has been on first lines and fourth lines, and he always looks like the same player. He can perform with also-rans and he doesn’t look out of place lined up with the best players.
- One of the intriguing decisions to come for Habs management is what to do with Tomas Tatar. He is the leading point-getter on the Canadiens and has 17 goals already this season. Tatar has one more campaign left for Montreal before he is an unrestricted free agent. GM Marc Bergevin will need to deal him this season, or the next season when his contract expires. Being the leading scorer on the Habs, he could fetch as high as a first-round draft choice. It would be a good move to get a first-round asset for a 29-year-old, but Bergevin has stressed that he wants to remain competitive while he rebuilds, hinting that he may not deal the first-line winger. Tatar had a strong game, scoring his 17th goal of the season. He also added two assists.
- There sure have not been a lot of feel-good stories on the Habs this season, but you sure have one in Ilya Kovalchuk. He was bought out by the Los Angeles Kings, and if the Canadiens didn’t have injury issues, they would not have given him a look. But Bergevin needed scoring help, so he looked to a player that the Kings had no use for despite being one of the league’s worst teams themselves. Kovalchuk has played seven games for Montreal so far, and he is the best scorer for the club in that short time. The Russian has three goals and four assists for a remarkable point-per-game. That would be the leading scorer on the team this season. His goal in this one was a display of elite talent that the club lacks. He got the puck in the slot and fired it top shelf like it was the easiest thing in the world. He has made everyone around him look better. It is hard to imagine that this continues, but it’s been fun for the fans to see his high level of talent, and his enthusiasm to play the game. If Kovalchuk maintains this type of pace, there will surely be interest in him at the trading deadline. That would be a good moment in an otherwise poor year for the Habs GM.
- This game had a weird first as Jesperi Kotkaniemi got into a fight protecting Ryan Poehling after a dirty hit. Kotkaniemi stepped in to fight Robert Hagg, and he destroyed him with about seven straight right hands. That would likely be the first fight of his career, as they don’t drop the gloves in the Finnish leagues. Kotkaniemi drew the extra two minutes for being the aggressor, but the Habs bench sure wasn’t worried about that as they were smiling broadly, and banging their sticks against the boards. Max Domi looked like a proud father. Dale Weise looked like he wanted to give the young man a hug. It was the most enthusiasm seen from the team since the overtime winner by Kovalchuk in Ottawa. Kotkaniemi got 17 minutes in all as he also got a 10-minute misconduct. He was gone for the rest of the game, and no one was concerned one bit about it. Also, it should be noted that there was no penalty on the obvious boarding that Poehling suffered. Thankfully, he exhibited no brain trauma on the play but was more bothered that he was bleeding, and that it was clearly a dirty hit.
- Phillip Danault had one of those Selke nights. It has not been as good a season for Danault as last season when he looked to be on the way up for finding himself in the top five for the Selke and maybe even getting a nomination. Danault found his better self in this one, though, with three assists and two were gorgeous assists, especially the feed to Kovalchuk for his second goal. Danault, Tatar and Kovalchuk are starting to get some chemistry here, and it might just be that Brendan Gallagher strengthens a second line when he returns. That would be a big bonus for the head coach to have two lines because Gallagher’s engine always makes everyone around him better. The second line would be better.
- Evaluating goalies is extremely difficult. Even the GM of the Canadiens has admitted that he is not adept at it. One of the strengths or weaknesses of a goalie that is obvious, though, and basically anyone can evaluate easily, is how well do they cover the shot on the ice from in close. When a player is within five feet, and in traffic, it is very unlikely that he can get the puck to the top part of the net. Therefore the goalie’s mission is to make sure that he has blocked off the lower part of the net, or even make sure that he has blocked off the ice surface. Late in the first period, there is a scramble in front of Carey Price. The puck is loose. The thinking here with no one having control, and everyone flailing at it, is any shot is not going to be sent to the top part of the net. Joel Farabee is the player who finally gets it. He wheels and fires on the ice, as expected. Price does not have the lower part of the net covered at all. He is not big. He is not square. His paddle is not flat on the ice. It is, to be brutally honest, a bad moment in fundamental goaltending that even a neophyte can see. The shot was not even in the corner. It was basically in the middle of the net, and Price didn’t stop it. Price is .905 this year because of this one fundamental issue that he has not corrected. This is something he knows better. It is something he has said many times: “Carey, what was the key to success tonight?’ The response: “Just make sure I am square and big. Nothing more.” Any reporter that has spent any time with Price knows that he knows this, but somehow he has forgotten this basic thing. The rest of his talents look the same as they always have, but this one thing is vital: in a tight scramble, keep the paddle down, close up the pads, block out the bottom half, and allow that one time in 100 that the player manages to get it upstairs. Those are good odds and goalies must play them. Other than this weakness, the real enigma is watching him and not actually seeing anything to explain the poor save percentage, especially on a night like this one when Price was outstanding. He was the Price that the Canadiens are going to need for the next seven years. Overall, though, the season is a mystery and one that they need to figure out because a lot of years have been committed to him having a .925. If he can only do a .905, that’s a lot of years that resemble this one. They need the Price that was as good as it gets tonight with 40 saves making only the one mistake on the issue that has plagued him. A goat only on the one play; a hero the rest of the night.
- It’s time for fans to begin to consider who the Canadiens may draft this season, and in this NHL draft, do we find a silver lining to this horrible season? The Canadiens have drafted third in Marc Bergevin’s tenure twice but both times, the draft talent in those years was not elite. This time, a poor Habs record comes in an extremely good draft year. The top ten choices this year are of an elite skill set. Presently, the Canadiens draft sixth. If they do very poorly in the lottery, they would finish ninth. If they won the lottery, they would get the first choice Alexis Lafreniere who is the first franchise player in the draft since Connor McDavid or Auston Matthews. Lafreniere is that good. The Habs would love to draft the Quebec hero in front of their own fans at the Bell Centre this June. Moving down the line there is nothing but high-level talent. Consensus number two Canadian Quinton Byfield is an outstanding centre and he would be considered a number one in any other year. There are a number of high quality forwards in this draft. Tim Stutzle just finished a tremendous world junior tourney for Germany. Lucas Raymond is an explosive skater for Sweden. Alexander Holtz is a skillful finisher from Sweden. The best defenceman is Jamie Drysdale who is a smooth skater from Canada. Marco Rossi should also be noted. He is small but extremely talented leading the Ontario Hockey League in scoring presently. It is an outstanding draft, and the Canadiens should get a highly skilled player that will help them for years to come. What the club lacks are elite players. They’ll get one this June.