There will be many nights still to come in February when fans will assess how good the chances are for the Montreal Canadiens to make the playoffs, but in many respects, this could have been the last hurrah.
To catch the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers for third spot in the Atlantic Division, you have to beat them.
Last week, the Habs had an impressive win over the Panthers on a huge night. This week, a vital game against the Leafs at the Bell Centre.
It looked grim for most of it, but then came the storybook finish — a 2-1 win to make it nine wins in the last 12 for the Canadiens.
- It was an unusual game; both of these teams — known for their offences over their defences — looked troubled trying to create anything. There were no goals until the third period when the Leafs finally scored on their only shot in the entire frame. It was a remarkable period as the Habs dominated the third, but they could not seem to make it count. The most dangerous of the Canadiens was, again, Ilya Kovalchuk, who keeps upping his stock. Kovalchuk fired a one-timer on a Habs powerplay in the third period that required an outstanding save. He then had another chance a minute later that somehow did not go in, though it looked like a tap in. Three minutes after that, it was Kovalchuk again who had a sterling chance. Finally, with two minutes remaining, the Habs broke though. It was Marco Scandella who ripped a slap shot home. Nick Suzuki was setting the screen for 1-1. The Habs outshot the Leafs 16-1 in the third period.
- The best Canadiens player for a long time has been their goalie Carey Price. He had a rough November, so he has not received a lot of praise for the recovery that he has had, but the numbers are outstanding for the former Hart Trophy winner. Since Dec. 1, Price has had a .924 save percentage. He has a .937 since Jan. 1. In his last nine games before this one, he had a .950. These are tremendous numbers. Certainly, among the best in hockey. That just shows how deep the hole was that the Canadiens created with their two eight-game winless skids. With Price’s play, though, this script is not yet written to its conclusion. The math is still not good, but the spirit is clearly willing.
- The game-winner in overtime was clear magic. It started with a blocker save that Price just might have actually meant as a pass to Nick Suzuki. Price directed it not into the corner, but right to Suzuki, who started on a breakaway. Yes, that’s right, a breakaway off of a save from Price that he directed with the blocker. Suzuki had a clean look from 175 feet out, but he was stopped on a poke check. However, Kovalchuk hustled in with the same pace as Suzuki to trail the play. The rebound went right to him and he shot it in easily into the net as the Habs saved their season. Kovalchuk’s celebration was off the charts. The Bell Centre was electric. Everyone was on their feet. Kovalchuk’s arms went akimbo as he was so excited he didn’t seem to know what to do with them. Everyone on the Habs was trying to chase Kovalchuk down, but he celebrated directly with the fans. This is a player who never really won in a hockey market. He never felt this atmosphere. He was basking in it. He is feeling that spice of life that has a downside, of course, but oh my — it has an upside too. The place was rocking and the conductor was one Ilya Kovalchuk resurrecting his career.
- Victor Mete has had quite a struggle this week, with good reason. He’s had the flu for a week and said that he had not eaten since Monday. So he could be partially excused for being the goat on the first Maple Leafs goal of the night. Mete was giving too much respect to the line rush and he backed too far in front of his own goalie. That allowed a shot from John Tavares, who is not going to miss high-quality chances to convert for 1-0. A tight hockey game like Saturday at the Bell Centre only takes one wrong moment to change into one wrong night. Mete has been up and down as a pro. Some nights he has played on the first pair and done all right, and as a result, the predictions for his career success have been lofty. Other nights, he struggles on the third pair, and it does not seem like there is much upside. When there is that much inconsistency, it is wise to not expect miracles. It’s been thought here that he is a third pair defender with gusts to second pair at times. When the Habs truly are a contender in the NHL and the playoffs are a certainty, expect Mete to take a more a secondary role. He skates well, but the size is a factor as he has trouble winning enough puck battles against high-quality talent. It’s difficult to just skate away from everyone. Sometimes, you need muscle.
- The prospects continue to put in impressive results for the Canadiens. Cole Caufield continues his freshman season pouring it on goals-wise. Caufield is now only two goals off the lead in all of college hockey. To do this as a freshman is outstanding. Caufield has scored his 18th goal of the season for Wisconsin, who continues to be horrible despite the Habs draft pick’s outstanding work. Caufield’s goal was from behind the net, as he got the puck on his stick and quickly banked it off the Michigan goalie who was still trying to get set. The Wolverines won 8-4 as the Badgers defensively continue to be as soft as butter. Wisconsin was expected to be outstanding this year, but no one has lived up to their potential except Caufield. On the farm, there is more positive to report. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is finding life in Laval to his liking. He has played only three games and has six assists. He has chemistry with Charles Hudon as the first five of Kotkaniemi’s assists were on goals by Hudon. The sixth assist was a gorgeous cross-crease pass to Riley Barber. Kotkaniemi looks so comfortable in Laval. He has extra time that he is enjoying. He has the puck on his stick a lot, which is vital to development. GM Marc Bergevin with another smart decision also moving Ryan Poehling to Laval. The Saint Cloud State first-rounder was not developing in Montreal. Skating up and down your wing for 30 games barely touching the puck is not how to develop. There should be no fear about either of these players. Kotkaniemi is 19 and Poehling is 20. There are many years to keep developing, and this is the right way to do it.