The home stretch has begun with the Montreal Canadiens still in the mix, but needing to go on a big run to make the playoffs.
It’s a four-game week leading up to the Super Bowl on Sunday with the regular two matinees, a week that started with a rare Monday night affair against one of the best teams in hockey, the Washington Captials.
The Capitals found themselves without Alexander Ovechkin, who is serving a one game suspension for skipping the all-star game. But in the end, they didn’t need Alexander the Great, as the Caps doubled the Canadiens 4-2.
The rest of the Habs season has been about trying to play well enough to keep the fans in the fight — a fight that the East Conference standings say is in round 10, with six of the first nine rounds lost for the Habs. It is also about letting the young players get a chance to shine.
There’s no need at this point to get too excited about a veteran doing well. There is altogether too much Nick Cousins on the ice for where the Habs are in this season’s sad story. This is now more about Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nick Suzuki, and Ryan Poehling, with a dash of Victor Mete and Cale Fleury thrown in.
As a result, it’s good to report that Kotkaniemi was among the best of the Canadiens on this night. He was working hard to get into the dirty zones, and had a terrific opportunity in the second period from five feet. He also drew a penalty a shift later with hard and talented work.
He made some strong passes, too. On the whole, Kotkaniemi hasn’t seen the puck on his stick enough at the NHL level. This is an issue noted here, with much criticism, since his rookie season. So when he has a night when the puck seems to be following him around, and he seems to have enough time to stick-handle and be creative, it’s a good night.
There’s a ways to go here still, and the impatience can be startling when Kotkaniemi is still going to be in his teens until June, but this kid is moving along just fine. It’s not sparkling; it is true. It isn’t a fast-track to obvious greatness, but very few look like they are on that path at the age of 19. This is a time in the season, with the math getting progressively worse for the playoffs, that the organization needs to come together and decide how they can best prepare for 2020-2021.
The answer? Kotkaniemi sees the ice a lot.
Kotkaniemi gets great linemates; he gets time on the power play. Especially after the trading deadline, it should be that anyone in the plans for next September gets heavily favoured, while anyone not in those plans barely sees the ice.
After a solid opening five minutes, the Canadiens looked completely out of sorts for large stretches of the contest. Phillip Danault was strong in this one, with his skating legs and his hunger. It’s just that there weren’t enough like Danault who had that same timing.
Tomas Tatar also had his legs, but beyond that, there were many who didn’t have their game back after the layoff for the all-star break.
It’s not often that you get a feel-good story in a loss, but this game provided one.
Dale Weise hadn’t scored an NHL goal this season, which he spent mostly in Laval. This was the 500th game in his NHL career, a milestone that even Weise probably thought was unlikely to come, but the man perseveres. He fights for all that he has earned over the course of a career that wasn’t supposed to go as well as it did.
Finally, in game 500 in the NHL, Weise scored a goal. And it was a beauty, too, as he took the puck in front of the net and showed great patience to hold on to it as he went across the net, before sliding it home.
The Habs were rejuvenated by the goal as they then trailed 3-2. They poured it on after that to play their best hockey of the night.
The difficulty for the Habs is the extremely low margin of error that they have created for themselves.
Every team has dogs like this one, but the club can’t afford any more dogs. They already had two eight-game winless skids this season, and they already had three losses to the worst team in hockey, the Detroit Red Wings. They already had two losses to the second worst team in hockey, too, the New Jersey Devils.
They already threw those 10 points out the window, having thrown away too many games overall. They entered the contest with four wins in five, so it seems unfair to be hyper-critical for a single loss against one of the best teams in the Capitals, but they just don’t have any room for error. That’s their plight; they have to be near perfect to get into the playoff fight. Each loss is extremely significant, or there will be no playoffs at all for the Habs.
As a result, you have to put nearly everyone in the goat category, because the bottom line is winning and the bottom line is getting nasty. On Monday, head coach Claude Julien said the players are intelligent and good at math. Perhaps they’re too wary of the bad math in front of them.
Thursday in Buffalo is another day, but they’re running out of days — and it’s only January.
Once again, the best moment for the Canadiens organization in the last 10 days was provided by Cole Caufield.
The Habs’ first-round pick last June continues to light it up in his freshman year of college. The first hat trick of his time at Wisconsin came on Friday night against Notre Dame, when the Badgers pulled off a vital comeback, taking out the Fighting Irish 6-4.
Caufield’s goals were all gorgeous, almsot all of them taking on a similar look every single game. Nearly 100 per cent of the time, his goal is a perfectly-placed shot into the top corner from about 15 to 20 feet.
The kid finds the top corner as skillfully as you can see in hockey, but whether he’s able to find the room to shoot 5-on-5 at the NHL level will decide his upside. He will definitely find the top corner on an NHL power play, and 3-on-3 in overtime when there is a lot of space, so without a doubt, there’s big hope for him at the NHL level.
However, he was drafted 15th for a reason: the worry was and is size. He will either conquer this limitation, or he will not. If he does, he will be a first liner who gets 40 goals. If he can’t, he will be a power play specialist who gets 20 goals.
At every level so far, though, he has excelled, having cut through the size issue and proving his detractors wrong every single time. In 24 games this season, Caufield has 16 goals and 10 assists for 26 points. So far so good; he’s achieving again. It’s going to be extremely interesting from a hockey perspective to watch this play out.
Lovers of pure hockey are pulling for him. Lovers of heavy hockey couldn’t care less.