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Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens even series with the Philadelphia Flyers

Montreal Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi (15) celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Flyers with teammate Jonathan Drouin (92) as Flyers defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere (53) skates away during the first period of NHL Eastern Conference Stanley Cup first-round playoff action in Toronto on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020.
Montreal Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi (15) celebrates his goal against the Philadelphia Flyers with teammate Jonathan Drouin (92) as Flyers defenceman Shayne Gostisbehere (53) skates away during the first period of NHL Eastern Conference Stanley Cup first-round playoff action in Toronto on Friday, Aug. 14, 2020. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Frank Gunn

The Montreal Canadiens will be without their head coach Claude Julien for the rest of their series with the Philadelphia Flyers.

Julien had an operation to stent a coronary artery on Thursday. He complained of chest pains in the hours after Game 1. Kirk Muller has taken over as head coach during the series. He has experience in the role for three years in Carolina with the Hurricanes.

It is a serious backdrop for the Canadiens, as if playing in an empty stadium as a reminder of COVID-19 wasn’t enough. Twenty-twenty just won’t quit.

Game 1, the Canadiens competed very well with the Flyers, who are the top seed in the east. They were even in shots and chances but Montreal fell by the slimmest of margins. Game 2, the Canadiens showed Game 1’s effort was no fluke as Montreal dominated to even the series with a 5-0 win.

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READ MORE: Canadiens head coach Claude Julien on his way home to Montreal after coronary procedure

Wilde Horses 

  • The Canadiens played their best first period since Guy Carbonneau was head coach. One of the changes in the contest was that Max Domi was taken from the centre position and put on the wing. The leading scorer of the team last season was wasting away on the fourth line. Domi has made overtures that he wants to be a centre, but Domi on this team is much better cast as a winger. He is not good defensively, so he shouldn’t be a centre handling all of those responsibilities. The greatest skill that Domi has is his zone entries. He’s gifted at that aspect of the game and there is no reason whatsoever that he can’t be the player trying to win the zone when he is playing on the wing. In fact, he carried the puck up ice many times as the winger in this one. All he needs to do is realize that he is best served there. The Canadiens are designed with Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi as the first two centres and Domi on the wing on one of the top two lines — that’s clearly where Domi needs to be. And it was where he was for Game 2, moving to a line with Kotkaniemi and Jonathan Drouin, and the three of them combined for the second goal of the first period. They clicked immediately. In fact, everyone was clicking in that first period. It was an absolutely dominating performance from the Canadiens, who looked like the first seed, while the Flyers looked like the 24th-ranked team in the NHL when they stopped playing hockey in March. At one point, the shot attempts in the first were 24 to three in favour of Montreal. The Flyers didn’t get their first shot on net until 3:17 was left in the first. It’s not all the line changes, of course, but it sure played a part.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde — Philadelphia Flyers win tight Game 1 over the Montreal Canadiens

Click to play video 'Call of the Wilde: Habs kick things off against the Flyers' Call of the Wilde: Habs kick things off against the Flyers
Call of the Wilde: Habs kick things off against the Flyers – Aug 14, 2020
  • You could pick out just about everyone from the Habs for some form of a highlight in this one, but it’s the youth of the club that gives fans and the organization the most optimism. Nick Suzuki is not only a cerebral centre finding himself in good positions all the time and making correct decisions, but he is also now showing an emerging ability to win puck battles. Battles are partly about size — no one should deny that. However, puck battles are also about balance and body positioning. That’s a skill that you learn just as much and is just as important as the height you are born with. Brendan Gallagher is one of the best puck battlers on the club, and he is small comparatively. Add Suzuki to the not-big-but-plays-big category. Suzuki was winning battles all over the sheet. What really impresses is how he is able to not only win the puck, but also then separate himself from the checker so easily. He often wins the battle and then leaves his checker three strides behind in one quick second. Most fans — in fact, 90 per cent in a twitter poll — wanted the Canadiens to have the ninth pick overall in the draft with a 12.5 per cent chance of the top pick in the lottery, but watching Suzuki turn into an NHLer is so very important for the future as well. Watching him should be worth at least as much joy as who the club would have taken ninth.
  • The other revelation is the other young centre. Jesperi Kotkaniemi‘s only 20 years of age and many had already given up on him due to a tough sophomore season, but he went to Laval in February and he learned that he was too good for that league. Kotkaniemi was a point-per-game player in the American Hockey League before he got a serious spleen injury. He’s recovered, clearly. The young Finn had an absolutely stunning Corsi of 86 per cent in the first two periods of Game 2, which is as dominant as you will see. Kotkaniemi again is surprising most with his ability to win puck battles. This was his biggest weakness in his first two years. He was more like a deer falling on the ice. He sure wasn’t a player who could battle for goals in front of the net. In six games in the playoffs, Kotkaniemi has four goals. For his first-period goal Friday, he fought off his check beautifully to keep firing on Carter Hart before finding a hole between the pads. The goal in the third period was a smooth move into the slot and a quick wrist shot from 15 feet. The ninth pick in the draft would have been nice instead of the 16th, but what is much better is watching the future of the team come of age right before everyone’s eyes. You can’t win a hockey game without winning the middle of the sheet. Win the middle, win the game. For the first time in a long, long time, it appears the Habs can actually win the middle.
  • The Canadiens needed Tomas Tatar to change his story, and did he ever. In the first five games of the playoffs, Tatar didn’t count a single point. That’s not ever going to be enough for a first-line player who was getting power-play time as well. He woke up in a big way, scoring two goals and helping the Habs to a 3-0 lead early in the second period. Tatar’s second goal was particularly a joy to watch as he sniped the shot into the top corner. Your skilled players have to show some skill, and Tatar finally found his better self.
  • In the second period, the referees awarded the Flyers a 5-on-3 power play for 1:38. This is a massive amount of time to try to kill down two men. Shea Weber was an absolute monster during the penalty kill. He was on the ice for all but three seconds of it. Carey Price didn’t have to make a difficult save, but he did a tremendous job of killing any chance of a Flyers rebound. Any shot that they did take from the point, which was more designed for rebounds than to go straight in, Price deadened with his body to smother it. He was the fourth penalty killer as the Canadiens got the job done to keep their three-goal lead. Ben Chiarot was also a beast as he has been throughout the playoffs. The Habs’ number-one pairing that looked tired in March is shutting down some unbelievably good hockey players so far in these playoffs.
  • Carey Price has two shutouts and a .953 save percentage in six playoff games. Price going into the playoffs rested beats the hell out of Price entering the playoffs bruised, battered and emotionally drained after at least 60 games played.

Wilde Goats 

  • A five-goal win over the number-one seed in the Eastern Conference, dominating from start to finish could not possibly warrant a hunt for a Wilde Goat.

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens shutout Pittsburgh Penguins to win series

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Wilde Cards 

  • The balance of the lines was right for the first time in the playoffs. The club had been winning without a fourth line. No idea why the coaching staff stuck to Max Domi where he does not belong. Jake Evans was back in the lineup and he brought good energy to the game. Joel Armia was much more a contributor when less was asked of him. The fourth line of Alex Belzile with Evans and Armia was strong and it showed that when you can roll four lines for an entire game, then you can put good pressure on your opponent with your speed and fresh legs. This was the best the Habs have looked in a very long time. It won’t look like this in Game 3. Here’s why: it’s impossible to look as good as they did for large portions of this one against another professional hockey team.

 

READ MORE: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens shock the Pittsburgh Penguins in game three

Click to play video 'Call of the Wilde: will the Habs make it to the second round?' Call of the Wilde: will the Habs make it to the second round?
Call of the Wilde: will the Habs make it to the second round? – Aug 7, 2020