Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens battle through injury, illness to shade the Anaheim Ducks

Montreal Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry and his wife have started the tabs to say thank you. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz

The Montreal Canadiens are trying to stay in the hunt for a playoff spot, but their health isn’t helping.

The flu continues to spread through the club, which caused Jake Evans to be called up from Laval and inserted into the lineup. Most of the sick players, though, toughed it out and played.

Ryan Poehling and Jordan Weal, however, were unable to dress due to the flu, and the Habs also lost Shea Weber, who blocked a shot in New Jersey and has a lower-body injury. He was put on the injured reserve list, and will be unavailable for at least a week.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens wake up, eke out 5-4 shootout win over New Jersey Devils

That was the ugly backdrop as the Canadiens hosted the Anaheim Ducks at the Bell Centre. And as much as everything was against them, they didn’t care.

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The Canadiens skated to a 3-2 overtime win over Anaheim.

Wilde Horses 

There has been a lot of talk about what makes a pro ready for the NHL when his career begins. Where does a player belong?

The point made quite often is that the player needs to be able to do what he did at the lower level, or he cannot possibly be developing. So while we’ve watched Ryan Poehling, for example, skate up and down the wing without the puck, we can see quite clearly that he isn’t developing. How can you develop without the puck?

Poehling isn’t doing what he did at Saint Cloud State last season. This means that he needs to develop skills in the American Hockey League. When he is effective in Laval, then he can graduate to Montreal.

Contrast that with Nick Suzuki. Here’s a player who was in the Ontario Hockey League last season, tearing it up in points with a long playoff run. Suzuki is also in his first season, but in this case, he is doing what he did last year at the lower level. Of course, he doesn’t have the exact same freedoms as he did in Owen Sound and Guelph, but he does have the puck on his stick a lot. He is able to win puck battles, create at the NHL level, and take shots. He is able to find mates with slick passes. He is able to separate himself from checkers.

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The difference between Suzuki and Poehling is stark: one belongs in Montreal, the other does not.

Suzuki is showing that he is going to be a star, achieving so much at the age of 20. He got the only goal in the first period on a crisp shot on the power play, his 11th of the season. He is fourth in rookie scoring now, less than a half-dozen points from the top rung as he tries to find his way onto the Calder Trophy ballot as the league’s top rookie.

Fans want there to be one theory on where a player belongs, but it can only be judged on a case-by-case basis. If the player is able to achieve the same skill set at the NHL level as he did in juniors, college, or the AHL, then he belongs. But if the player looks like a completely different athlete, unable to find the puck on his stick, separate from checkers, or mirror in any way what he did before, then he doesn’t.

Dominate at one level, then move on to the next level. Suzuki is in the best rookie hunt. Quinn Hughes has 39 points to lead all freshmen, while Suzuki has 34. Suzuki needs to step it up a notch in the final 25 to get a Calder Trophy nomination.

Don’t bet against him, though. This kid is special.

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READ MORE: Call Of The Wilde: Columbus Blue Jackets edge the Montreal Canadiens

The second best forward on the night was Ilya Kovalchuk, who continues to write an interesting story this 2020.

Kovalchuk executed a perfect feed to Brendan Gallagher for the Habs go-ahead goal at 2-1. Kovalchuk, who now has 11 points in 14 games with the Canadiens on five goals and six assists, wasn’t wanted by anyone in the NHL last month. This month, though, there will be a bidding war for his services at the trading deadline. Depending who you listen to, he will fetch anywhere from a second-round to fourth-round draft choice.

With the way he’s playing, though, that might just be a first-round choice on Feb. 24. He needs to keep playing at close to a point-per-game pace. There’s absolutely no way that a player who can count a 70- to 80-point season isn’t going for a first-round pick. That goes double when the player has had a legendary career, and seems to have caught lightning in a bottle.

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It’s going to be extremely interesting to see what happens, but a sampling of the fan base is quite clear: they want him to sign in Montreal for next season.

READ MORE: Call Of The Wilde: Montreal Canadiens dominant over the Florida Panthers

GM Marc Bergevin has to contemplate this, because if Kovalchuk fetches only a second-rounder, that would be a late second from a playoff team. That player statistically makes the league only 15 per cent of the time. You might as well have an already proven player on your roster when you absolutely need to make the playoffs, or your job is in jeopardy. Kovalchuk said at the pre-game skate in the morning that he didn’t wish to speak on the matter right now, but concentrate on some wins to get back in the playoff chase instead.

That’s the right answer; it quells more questions about it. You cannot be sending a message to the rest of your team that you are concentrating on where you will be on the 25th. There are games to play, and Kovalchuk is playing them well.

The Canadiens gutted their way to overtime where they won it on a masterful moment from Jeff Petry. He had a two-on-one with Nick Suzuki, who skated hard to the net to provide the decoy, then elected to shoot and absolutely wired a shot into the top corner for the game winner. The Habs refuse to give this thing up easily. They’ve put their best run of the season together in the last 10 games, while everyone has been writing them off. Now, they’re sick and injured and they still refuse to pack it in.

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The math is still horrible, but they don’t seem to care. Carey Price has been outstanding. The players are working hard. They are still hunting.

Wilde Goats 

The game was a solid effort by a Habs team fighting the flu and not having a lot of energy.

The two goals against had a familiar series of mistakes: the players were there, but they were not finding a man to check effectively. On the first goal, Artturi Lehkonen, Max Domi, and Ben Chiarot were all in the area, looking at the man behind the net, while not looking at the dangerous man in front of the net. A quick pass and a quick goal. The second goal very close to it.

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

Again, the defenders were there in Christian Folin and Marco Scandella, but they were not checking with any great urgency. It was certainly a goal that didn’t need to happen, but the defenders were just too soft in the moment. It’s a shame for defenders when a goal is allowed when you are right there to actually defend, but don’t do it enthusiastically enough. It means that the oppostion hasn’t really created anything spectacular to beat you in a skill sort of way.

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It was just a matter of not working hard enough. All in all, though, to feel like most do right now, that was a pretty solid effort apart from those two mistakes.

Wilde Cards 

The Canadiens did the right thing on the weekend, sending Jesperi Kotkaniemi down to the minors. He needs the puck on his stick to develop.

For the 19-year-old Finn, things are going extremely well in Laval so far. He actually referenced his age on Wednesday night after the game for the Rocket, suggesting that people cut him a little slack. He mentioned that people seemed to forget that he is so young, and perhaps a little patience is required in his development.

This is exactly true. Joel Armia didn’t even start in the NHL as a first-round draft choice until he was 22, and he is still improving at 26. The first two games for Kotkaniemi have been exceptional with four assists already. One small note of caution is that they have all been on the power play and he has not managed to count 5-on-5. However, he does look so much more comfortable with the extra time afforded him.

His weakness is more apparent at the minor league level than at the NHL level, because it’s the only thing that is standing out as poor. He has to learn how to win puck battles. Every player in the NHL has to win puck battles or they simply are not NHLers — most of hockey is a puck battle with an opponent. Kotkaniemi is still so slight on his legs, and as a result he can never get leverage to win the puck, then separate himself from his opponent.

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Here is where the 19 years of age comes into the equation. He needs to mature physically before we’ll really know where this young player is as a pro. When his body fills out, especially in the legs, then we will have a much better idea how he can battle. If he cannot battle, then his career will be limited.

This is why his success has been won so far with the power play. He has the time, and is not challenged for the puck, to show his great passing and vision. It’s been surprising that in two overtime games with 3-on-3 hockey, his coach, Joel Bouchard, has used Kotkaniemi only one shift. He really should be out there a considerable amount with so much ice. This would be his strength with his creativity and vision.

All in all, though, this is exactly what Kotkaniemi needs and he seems to be enjoying himself. He spoke also of liking his first game a lot to tell everyone that he was not pouting about the demotion.

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The young man is intelligent. He understands that it takes time to figure this out. The NHL was a bonus, but this is where he will either become the third pick overall or not  — with the puck on his stick and the time to create.

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