Call of the Wilde: Hope still alive for Montreal Canadiens after shading Buffalo Sabres 3-1

Montreal Canadiens forward Nate Thompson (44) and goalie Carey Price (31) celebrate the team's 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Buffalo, N.Y. .
Montreal Canadiens forward Nate Thompson (44) and goalie Carey Price (31) celebrate the team's 3-1 victory over the Buffalo Sabres in an NHL hockey game Thursday, Jan. 30, 2020, in Buffalo, N.Y. . (AP Photo/Jeffrey T. Barnes)

A special Call of the Wilde, looking at the overall issues faced by the Montreal Canadiens, was the big offering at Global Montreal Thursday, but the Habs also played game 52, taking on the Sabres in Buffalo.

The Canadiens needed a miracle finish that is rarely seen after the all-star break, but onward they went, trying to get to 96 points or more for a playoff spot.

The Sabres were the right opponent to keep hope alive, as Montreal won 3-1.

Wilde Horses

Nick Suzuki continues to figure it all out at the NHL level. In the second period, Suzuki made a world-class move to get a chance, beating the defenceman for speed before executing a terrific shot on Carter Hutton.

It was one of those plays that a highly-skilled player tries, but a lower-skilled player doesn’t even think of attempting. Give Suzuki a couple more seasons and he will actually convert it for a goal. Suzuki was the architect of the Habs’ first goal of the night, in fact, doing the hard work for Ilya Kovalchuk to convert for 1-1.

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In the third period, Suzuki put together a simple terrific shift. His stick skills were outstanding as he was weaving through the Sabres’ defenders with ease around the Buffalo goal. This kid seems to be special. He does have quite a lot to learn, defensively, but the struggles he was having with Max Domi seemed to be lessened considerably with Kovalchuk and Armia.

Kovalchuk is a Wilde Horse again in this one. It’s remarkable how little chance a talented player needs to score, compared to the absolute gift that a low-talent player needs, and he still might not convert. The puck laid free and still only very briefly for Kovalchuk. In fact, everyone was looking for it, including the Sabres goalie.

Then, boom: in an instant, it’s in the top corner off of Kovalchuk’s stick. That’s four goals in the last four games for the Russian winger; the Habs could have used numbers like that the entire season. He continues to average a point per game for Montreal after struggling in Los Angeles.

The more he succeeds, the more it’s going to be interesting what the path is for him on Feb. 24 — the trading deadline.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens edge the Vegas Golden Knights

He might become so attractive as a player that the Habs may offer him a contract. It looked like bringing him to Montreal was a stop-gap for all of the injured, but he’s won a job. There’s no question about his usefulness. One could even argue that he has been the Habs’ best forward since he joined the team.

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This is remarkable, and he has also excited the fans. And finally, he has brought a tremendous attitude to the locker room as well treating the entire team to dinner, and making sure that Brett Kulak felt compensated for giving up his number 17 as Kovalchuk gifted a Rolex to the defenceman.

It really is difficult to believe that he couldn’t find a spot on the Kings, who are struggling so badly.

Wilde Goats

The start of the contest was atrocious, as the Habs didn’t get a shot until 11-and-a-half minutes of the first period were already played.

The shots on goal at the time were 11-1 for the Sabres. It seemed like a night that found the Canadiens barely interested, but after that they played solid and held the Sabres to 21 shots on the night overall.

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As far as Wilde Goats, though, there were only two working lines, as Suzuki and Danault’s line were both good. However, the third and fourth lines were invisible. Ryan Poehling did have one good moment, when he was in the crease working hard and taking hits to get a goal. That’s where Poehling needs to be to find NHL success.

Other than that, six forwards were complete passengers. You play a team like Buffalo and two lines can be enough.

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Wilde Cards 

Keeping the ears glued to the trade front as the trading deadline approaches in 25 days, the Canadiens are expected to listen to offers for a lot of players. However, expect though that they won’t make a trade for Tomas Tatar or Jeff Petry, unless the offer is so much of a win that they can’t resist.

Instead, the feeling is that Marc Bergevin has his eyes more on a competitive 2020-21 team than wanting to build a richer future down the road with prospects and first-round draft choices. Considering where the club is in development of their youth and the ages of those two players in their 30s, it doesn’t seem to be the wisest strategy.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens make it 8 winless games against the Edmonton Oilers

Bergevin no doubt believes strongly in his team’s chances next season. He wouldn’t be the first GM to believe that next year will be significantly better without having the prospects ready to go for that optimistic thought to actually make sense. The club has four or five defenders and a high-scoring forward that will make a difference in two or three years, but even if some make the team next year, it is too soon for them to be in the lineup making a big impact.

Are the Habs good enough?
Are the Habs good enough?

With Tatar and Petry likely to stick in Montreal for next season, the trade action will probably centre around players like Nate Thompson, Dale Weise, and Ilya Kovalchuk. None of the three of these players will likely result in a significant return. The feeling is that Kovalchuk will fetch a considerable price, but a third round is likely, with a second round a possibility.

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It’s hard to imagine a team will give up a first-rounder for a player they could have had for free in January, but GMs get desperate, so anything is possible.