The Montreal Canadiens are playing some of their best hockey of the season, yet the move up the standings remains challenging with other teams also putting in strong results.
That’s why the key to this endeavour is simply to target the point total needed that is likely — 97.
It means the Canadiens need to go 21-8 to conclude the season. While that seems daunting, only a couple weeks ago it was 27-10. The mantra is simple: keep winning.
The Columbus Blue Jackets were in town for another four-point game for the Habs this weekend. On Sunday, however, the playoff numbers got worse — the Blue Jackets won 4-3. Now, the winning mark likely required for the Canadiens is a daunting 21-7.
- Artturi Lehkonen continues to be one of the most versatile players for the Canadiens. He can play up and down the line-up. Right now, he is with Max Domi, helping that line to be defensively responsible. One moment in the first period stood out for the Finn. He started a forecheck by himself. It was one-on-two and somehow he neutralized both defenders who ended up locked together, then won the puck from both of them to set up Domi for one of the Habs’ highest quality chances in the first period. Lehkonen is fourth on the team in goals with 12 as he tries to eclipse his career-best of 18. It’s a stretch to say that he gets there with fewer than 30 games remaining, but whatever the final total, once again, it’s already been a strong season for Lehkonen. On the second Habs goal, by Domi, it was Lehkonen again doing the dirty work in front of the net providing the screen. Around the league, he is one of the most respected players among coaches in the game. There is no reason whatsoever to believe that he will not be around with the Canadiens for a long time. They will surely re-sign him. He’s the type of player who is vital in a deep playoff run, if the Habs can ever get to one.
- Tomas Tatar is as consistent as they come. With a laser into the top corner to get the Canadiens on the board in the second period, Tatar scored his 20th goal of the season. That’s six-straight years that Tatar has hit the 20-goal plateau. That’s no easy feat in a defensive NHL. Tatar will fetch quite a reward for the Habs’ GM, if he chooses the trade route this Feb. 24. He would probably fetch a first-round draft choice. It is more likely that Marc Bergevin keeps Tatar for a final season on his contract next year when he needs to make sure that he has a roster that can earn a berth in the playoffs. The entire front office must know that they are pulling on a string that is fraying badly. Jobs will likely be lost if they miss the playoffs five of six years in 2020-2021. That would mean the benefactor of that first-round draft choice that Tatar fetches is the next GM or the next coach. If anyone believes this does not factor into a GM’s thinking, they are naive. We have seen GMs make the moves that save their jobs time and time again. It’s that time for the Montreal GM now, and he will likely act accordingly.
- On that Tatar goal, there was another outstanding moment that led to the perfect shot. Nick Suzuki read the play beautifully at the blue line to keep it alive. He could have backed away, but he saw the Blue Jackets player was a bit disorganized, so Suzuki changed his mind at the last moment and pushed forward with just a little chip to keep it in at the blue line. From there, it was Gallagher to Tatar and it was 1-1. Suzuki has a terrific read on the game. He is the surprise winner of the “which one of these kids is going to be the centre” competition for the moment over Ryan Poehling and Jesperi Kotkaniemi. Easy to see that Suzuki will be the winner in the long run as well. Overall, in his rookie campaign, Suzuki is fourth in scoring with 33 points. Quinn Hughes leads all rookies with 38 points. It’s not a stretch to imagine that Suzuki finishes first overall in rookie scoring which would earn him a nomination for the Calder. The winner will be Hughes or Cale Makar, with the Avalanche rearguard having the inside track for the award with 30 games remaining.
- The first goal in a contest is so vital as it sets the tone for the rest of the game. While the Canadiens played well for most of the first period, it was the Blue Jackets who counted the opening marker on a mistake from Poehling in his own zone. The rest of the fourth line was out with him on the ice also floundering, and the defensive pairing of Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak was also out on the ice, but the blame will surely be focused on the rookie. Anyone who knows Claude Julien knows that Poehling will suffer for his error. Easy to expect that he will suffer quickly. He does need to go back to Laval to work on his stick skills, and this is the excuse to do it. He has chemistry with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and it might be a good idea to put them together on the same line. It does not appear as if the organization is thinking of Poehling as a centre right now, but more as a winger. The team has the centres they need in Phillip Danault, Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, so Poehling and the 19-year-old Finn for the rest of the season together on the same line in Laval is a natural. It actually needs to happen. Like Kotkaniemi, Poehling is not seeing enough of the puck at the NHL level and is not improving his stick skills. He needs to have the puck to improve with the puck. It’s the right move anyway, but with human nature, as it is, the first goal against will be Bergevin’s frustrated moment that produces the inevitable action.
- The prospect watch continues with exciting results for Habs fans just about every night of action. On Saturday night, the best moment was an absolute cannon of a slap shot from Cole Caufield. He came in with a clear look and ripped a shot into the top corner that was so fast the cameraman had a difficult time following it. Caufield finds the top corner better than any shooter at his level in a long time. Whether he is getting the chance on a cross-crease pass, a 30-foot slap shot or is three feet in front of the net, he finds the top corner every time with unexpected ease. The Wisconsin Badgers are doing surprisingly poorly in the standings, but you sure can’t put it on Caufield. The Canadiens’ first-rounder last year taken at 15 overall now has 17 goals on the season in 26 games. Caufield has also added 11 assists for an impressive 28 points. That is a point-per-game as a freshman. That is outstanding playing against fully grown men in college who have often already played their junior hockey and are now getting their education. Compare that to his teammate Alex Turcotte who has only 6-11-17 and was drafted fifth overall by the Los Angeles Kings. Turcotte has not scored in 13 games. Also, don’t sleep on Jayden Struble who is improving by leaps and bounds in his first college season at Northeastern. All of Struble’s ten points on a 3-7-10 balance are in the last ten games for the Huskies. The Beanpot Tournament starts Monday at the Garden in Boston, and Habs fans are reminded to keep their eye out for Struble and his teammate Jordan Harris who is also having a stellar season in his sophomore year for Northeastern. The Huskies play Harvard in the 5 p.m. game. That is followed by Boston College against Boston University at 8 p.m. The winners play in the final the following Monday.