The Montreal Canadiens faced a big challenge Tuesday night as they faced the red-hot Vancouver Canucks.
The Canadiens were without three regulars who were sent to playoff teams on the NHL trade deadline: Nick Cousins, Ilya Kovalchuk and Nate Thompson. The week before, Marco Scandella was also dealt.
The rest of the Canadiens players soldiered on, trying to slow down the surging Canucks road to the post-season — but the Habs eventually lost 4-3 in OT.
- Each game, the theory gains a little more credibility that Paul Byron was not right at the start of the season because of the concussion that he suffered. Since returning from injury, Byron seems like a completely different player. In October, he would skate up and down the wing doing nothing. He rarely touched the puck. He didn’t seem able to get involved in the dirty areas where, for a small player, he is quite efficient. Since his return four games ago, he is on fire. He’s the old Byron. He has four points in four games. His second goal in two games was a beauty. He took the cross-crease pass and deposited it easily. Every thought now seems to revolve around how good the Habs will be next year, and if they have this Byron back; instead of October Byron, the chances improve significantly. When Byron is playing well, with his speed, he can change the tenor of the game. He backs up defenders, creating not only room for himself, but also room for others. He can ignite a line with his speed. The Canadiens hope that he can sustain this, that he can maintain his health — not suffering another concussion, which would be devastating. The statistics of what Byron means to the line-up are telling. With Byron the last two seasons, the Habs are 46-25-7. Without Byron in the line-up, they are 27-32-9. One is a 104 point team; the other is a 76 point team. You can suggest that is a coincidence if you want. But those numbers are one heck of a powerful coincidence.
- Another player who looked different in this one was the player who made the gorgeous pass to Byron on the first goal, Max Domi. In the third period, he picked up another assist on a pass to Jordan Weal for the 3-2 marker. It was as if Domi had a giant weight lifted off of him as he skated with freedom and energy. Perhaps he was anxious that he would get traded at the deadline like many were rumouring. Domi has been an enigma at times this season as the organization has come to grips with the fact that Nick Suzuki is the better centre of the two. For now, Domi is back in the middle because Jesperi Kotkaniemi is in Laval along with another future centre, it is hoped, Ryan Poehling. Domi was never going to duplicate his 72-point breakout season last year when everything went right, including an unsustainable shooting percentage. However, he has not fallen off the cliff either as he will likely finish with around 50 points. If that is the fall-back season, which is natural before settling in the 60-point range, then Habs fans should feel satisfied. After all, Alex Galchenyuk, the man who was let go for Domi, is trying to hang on in the NHL on his third team in 12 months. As trades go, that one is a winner. Bergevin should sign Domi. He is still a player in ascension. Expect the contract to be in the range of $6 million per year for six years.
- Shea Weber was all over the ice in this one, which seems impossible considering his career was supposedly over two weeks ago (sic). There are some players who underachieved this year. There would have to be, or the team wouldn’t be suffering this season, but Weber sure is not one of the underachievers. He is 34 years of age, and we hear so often how he is slowing down and near the end of his great career. However, if you were to watch this one with Weber jumping into the offensive rushes often, you would think he had great energy. Weber scored his 15th goal of the season on a bullet of a slap shot from 50 feet. He doesn’t look finished at all, but he sure could use a left-handed partner one of these days. Ben Chiarot has also had a good season, and the signing has worked out, but the problem is they are both cut from the same cloth. What Weber could use is that Canucks’ rookie on the other bench, Quinn Hughes — a puck mover — so Weber could be more defensive. That would make more sense. There are a lot of years left in that Weber contract, with probably fewer left in that Weber body, so to maximize his time, he needs a young puck mover to dart up and down the ice, so he can stick to destroying people in front of the net for a living.
- Clearly, it is going to take Jonathan Drouin a bit of time to get back into the groove. Perhaps it will be a lot like the Paul Byron situation with his concussion; it may take Drouin time to feel comfortable with the strength and dexterity of his wrist. Drouin has now played eight games for the Canadiens since returning at the start of February, and he still does not have a point shot. What’s more distressing for him is he is also a liability on the defensive side of the puck with a minus-10 in those eight games. Patience is required with a wrist. It is one of the most difficult injuries to return from. The strength can take a long time to return. He does not look comfortable. He won’t shoot the puck. He isn’t engaged in the play. What a shame too for him as he was leading the team in scoring in mid-November when he had to go for surgery. At least the games are not of significance right now, so he can return in the fall hopefully getting more rehab and more confidence. Sometimes, it is just about the belief that you are indeed fine. That it won’t break again. That you can do what you could before. It’s going to be an interesting journey for him. Like Byron, the battle is with the mind as well as the body.
- Carey Price playing 16 of the last 17 games is not smart. He’s playing fine. It’s not a complaint about his ability to stop the puck. It’s a complaint that his body does not need to go through this. The organization has said that they want to limit his games played. They want to make sure that he doesn’t suffer an injury out of fatigue. Those are management’s words. However, this is his 54th game of the season. He averages 52 games per season, so he is already ahead of his career pace and there are 16 more games left in the campaign. He doesn’t need to set records in games played in a season for a club that’s been out of the playoffs for a long time. They have to have an intelligent eye for the future considering they have Price signed until the age of 38. When you have an asset trailing into the final third of their career, with six more years on the contract, they should not be playing him so many games that don’t matter. In basketball, Kwahi Leonard takes many nights off during the NBA season to preserve him for the games that are important in the playoffs. It worked towards a championship for the Toronto Raptors that the best player had the extra energy that he needed for the big games. It is not the craziest thing in the world to say that he should not play the rest of the season at all. There is nothing to prove anymore. Marc Bergevin could easily pull a Kwahi here and shut him down for the rest of the year. If you can’t bring yourself to that, then maybe four home games or so for the fans, but not on the road. Something, because this 16 of 17 is simply not thinking long term. If an injury were to come this season that stopped the club from having Price at the beginning of next year in October, what a catastrophe that would be; a catastrophe that could have been avoided.
- One interesting note of business did not get much attention on trading deadline day with so much happening. There was also a deadline to set your American Hockey League roster for the playoffs. It was thought that Nick Suzuki might be on it, so he could continue his season by playing some important games, if the Laval Rocket were able to make it to the post-season. However, GM Marc Bergevin did not opt for that avenue, so Suzuki is not eligible. This closes one door, but another door remains open as Suzuki is playing such good hockey that he may just be added to Canada’s world hockey championship team this May. The tournament is in Zurich and Lausanne, Switzerland. With the event after the first round of the NHL playoffs, Canada will have many athletes to pick from to secure its best team. With Suzuki only 20 years of age, it is somewhat of a long shot that he could be chosen. It will be interesting to follow his summer at the worlds and also to see if he receives a nomination for the Calder Trophy as NHL rookie of the year.