It’s a long journey to a playoff spot, but the hunt is on again for the Montreal Canadiens.
Montreal is at the point where they seriously do need to win every game they possibly can, and that starts with being much better at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens have only nine wins at home this entire season. It’s a bizarre difficulty that is nearly impossible to explain, but it is costing Montreal dearly.
The Vegas Golden Knights in town on Saturday night. And it was an old-fashioned barn-burner. The Habs led by two, but squandered it — only to win in a dramatic shootout 5-4.
- Ilya Kovalchuk was out of the league and his career looked finished. After almost two decades of professional hockey, the first pick overall for the Atlanta Thrashers at the start of the century was at the end of the line. The Los Angeles Kings bought him out. One of the worst teams in the league had absolutely no use for Kovalchuk. At the same time, thousands of miles away, forwards were dropping off the Montreal Canadiens due to injury. The roster was looking thin. The GM took a chance. What a move so far! Kovalchuk is writing a Cinderella story for the Habs. It’s only eight games, but in those eight, it seems like the Russian wants to drag the Habs right back into the playoff hunt. His shootout goal, he made look so easy. His emotion after the win rushing to Carey Price in celebration was, in itself, electric. It’s as if Kovalchuk is finding his joy for the game again right in front of our eyes. Montreal with four wins in its last five games. The possibility of the Habs making the playoffs remains slim, but the Kovalchuk experiment is a success even if they don’t make the post-season, because the Russian improves the team. Therefore, at this rate, he has earned the right to play again in Montreal next season. Suddenly, Marc Bergevin has two good choices. He can re-up on Kovalchuk because he is making a difference, or he can get a draft choice for Kovalchuk for a pick that one day may make a difference. Whatever Bergevin does, this is a win-win. Kovalchuk’s first goal came with fortitude. He could have peeled off after a rush didn’t work, but he stayed hungry around the net and kept banging away until he counted. The celebration was jubilant and infectious, the joy obvious. Kovalchuk is loving the crowd and enthusiasm of Montreal hockey. He’s appreciating the game; the spice of life in a hockey-mad city. And that city is going mad for him. The crowd roars a little louder. The ovations last a little longer. Kovalchuk is 36, so the wonderful memories that he can still create at a high level are fighting the natural progression of time, but, for now, he is the unexpected heartbeat that is thumping loudly throughout Habs nation.
- Ryan Poehling will be a strong pro once he gets more comfortable at this level. He has an awareness for the situation that is outstanding. This is all instinct. You either have a sense of what is needed in the moment, or you do not. When the Habs were nursing their lead and facing a tremendous amount of pressure, Poehling blocked a shot where he was not in position to do so well. He took it off the top of the knee and had to go to the locker room to see if anything was seriously hurt. That level of dedication is always needed. Third period with 11 minutes left in the game, it’s 3-2 Canadiens, and Poehling has the same situational awareness. There is pressure all over the Habs area. Carey Price is scrambling, and Poehling makes the outstanding play to release the Habs. He gets the puck, clears the defenceman, and starts a 2-on-1 rush. He then makes a perfect feed to Artturi Lehkonen, who can’t handle it, so nothing came of the rush, but Poehling again showed his smarts. It is not just his brain that is strong, he has a big body that is hard to knock off the puck. He also skates well. Poehling is growing each game. He has only one goal, but the points are going to come. They will definitely come. Management will be able to stay patient waiting for that moment because he rarely hurts the team in his own end.
- Carey Price continues to turn his season around in this final attempt for Montreal to get back into the playoff picture. Price has a save percentage of over .940 in the last 200 shots that he has faced. Over the entire season, Price’s save percentage that had dipped below the Mendoza Line of .900 for the season has jumped back to .907. Admittedly, that is not the goal of .925, but it is trending in the correct direction again. Price has tracked the puck well and is giving it a very strong second effort when he seems beaten. Recently, he is tracking so well on breakaways that he seems to be reading the pitches like the Houston Astros. Price also seems to be benefitting from the head coach not using him back to back. Sure, the Habs lost to the Blackhawks when he sat, but with Price resting, they were then ready for the Flyers and the Golden Knights. It’s a massive road to travel to make the playoffs, but the Canadiens are now only six points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for the third spot in the Atlantic Division. They are not good odds, but some will at least take the bet here. Looking at Price celebrating after the shootout win … it’s clear where he has laid his money down.
- The combination of Dale Weise to Nick Cousins was a valuable one in this game. Two goals that bookended the scoring for Montreal. They opened the scoring with Weise to Cousins in tight, then they closed it with Weise on a 2-on-1 with a gorgeous feed to Cousins again. That’s a fourth-line contribution that you are not expecting, and that’s often the blueprint for a strong night.
- One thing that is always difficult to understand is the lack of aggression as the clock winds down in a game. Reilly Smith scored the tying goal for Vegas with seven seconds left in the contest. With under 10 seconds left, and with the puck coming into the danger area, the opposition player should never be allowed to stand in the slot untouched. He should be neutralized in an extremely physical way. The closer it is to the end of the game, the more flagrant the penalty can be. Take a penalty, but do not allow a high-quality chance with five seconds left. Grab the stick if you have to and take a penalty. But by all means, for God’s sake, take away a high danger chance at all costs. Jeff Petry was soft on Smith, and the Golden Knights got their tying goal to send it to overtime. What is always smarter is neutralize Smith, so Petry goes to the box, then a face-off ensues, then you kill the final five seconds. This is always the smarter blueprint. It is counter-intuitive for a player to deliberately take a penalty, but that’s the right call.
- After getting off to an outstanding start at the American Hockey League level, it has become difficult for Cayden Primeau in his first season. Primeau in the first month and a half was looking like a sure thing at the pro level with a .940 save percentage at its peak. He also had starts in Montreal for the Habs and again shone with a .931 save percentage. Everything was looking as if he was going to seamlessly move from college right through the ranks to the NHL. Since then though, Primeau has fallen off a cliff. His save percentage has just dropped under the magic .900 mark to .899 on the year. Primeau is young at 20 years of age, and there is certainly no need to panic about the difficulty that he is having, but it sure was looking better in the first six weeks. It is surprising that Laval is battling for a playoff spot considering the goaltending from everyone. Charlie Lindgren has an .893, and Keith Kinkaid has an .894. Three goalies and they are all putting in poor numbers, but Laval is still finding success. That’s a testament to the work of the head coach Joel Bouchard. It is extremely challenging to do anything effectively in hockey without anyone to stop the puck.