This season, because of the unusual schedule to avoid travel, it will feel like a baseball season. In the major leagues, there are two game sets and three game series. The goal has always been to sweep a two-game set, and win two of three in a three game series. If you do that all season long, you are going to win the pennant. This is the first two game set for the Montreal Canadiens as they face the Edmonton Oilers again after a 5-1 win Saturday. On Wednesday, the Habs begin a three-game series with the Canucks in Vancouver with the clear goal to win two of three. That’s how the season will roll: gain momentum against opponents not settling for splits, and never be on the losing end of a three game series.
So to Monday night in Edmonton as the Canadiens went for a sweep paving the way for a strong start to the season. It was the first start for Jake Allen and Montreal won 3-1.
The special teams of the Montreal Canadiens last year was an Achilles heal for the club. They were brutal on both sides of the equation last season. This season, the Montreal power play is first in the entire National Hockey League. The penalty kill had a rough first night in Toronto allowing three Maple Leafs power play goals, but since then against an Edmonton power play equally lethal, the Habs did a stellar job. In the first period, the Canadiens were shorthanded for just shy of six straight minutes. With weapons such as Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl you sure didn’t like the Canadiens chances, but they managed to kill off the entire time allowing only three shots on goal. That included some 5-on-3 power play time for Edmonton.
The Habs were extremely aggressive on the puck carrier which you did not see last season at all. Nick Suzuki has turned into a penalty killer who reads the play very well to break up chances. You would not think in his second season that Suzuki would already be an effective penalty killer but his hockey sense goes well beyond his years. The force of Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot also should definitely be noted as they are fierce in front of the net with their physicality. In the second period, right away, they took yet another penalty, and this time it was Jake Evans who shone with extremely quick feet to win a puck in the Edmonton corner, then he protected it for 15 seconds. The Oilers were unsuccessful in seven chances in the game. With McDavid and Draisaitl on the ice most of the time? Nothing is predictable. Nothing.
Nick Suzuki with a tremendous game again. The verdict needs to be deliberated for a couple months at least whether he is a true first line centre with a point-per-game potential, but it sure is leaning in that direction for this kid. Suzuki has tremendous intelligence and vision. Skating, shooting, passing — these things are all so important, of course — but if you have these skills but bring nothing but dumb decisions to the ice, you’re limited. Suzuki is wise beyond his years. He has the skills, but what you will really love through the years are the decisions he makes. Like the one to give the Habs a 2-0 lead late in the second period. He’s on a rush going down the right side. There are players charging the net. The play looks to be a dump toward the goal and hope for the best moment. Suzuki, instead, slows down the play and waits for Shea Weber to trail. It’s Weber who actually goes to goal, and then scores on his own rebound from behind the net banking it off the back of Mikko Koskinen’s head. Weber with the goal, but nothing happens without the superior processing of Suzuki. His mind for the game is simply terrific. What an acquisition for GM Marc Bergevin from Vegas. One of his best ever trades and he has had many good trades.
Joel Edmundson is absolutely finding his way now for the Canadiens on their blue line. In fact, all of the Canadiens defencemen are an absolute handful. The physicality that they bring on every pairing is not enjoyable at all for the opposition. If it isn’t Shea Weber cross-checking you in front of the net, then it’s Ben Chiarot. Edmundson it’s clear by the third game that he loves to look for the open ice check on a forward with his head down at the centre line. He’s about to inflict some serious pain on someone soon. Same scenario for Alexander Romanov who also looks to step up and destroy. That’s four of the six defencemen who are extremely physical. The Canadiens may just have the best back six in all of the North Division. They may have had the worst six last season. Put players in the roles that they can handle, and everything for everyone gets easier. They held high scoring Edmonton to one goal Saturday and one goal on Monday. Impressive.
Jake Allen played his first game in net for the Canadiens and was it ever a memorable one for the former Montreal junior goalie. Allen was outstanding facing the high scoring Oilers and frustrating them the entire night. What a difference a strong back-up can make. This would have likely been one for the loss column with the back-ups of recent seasons in the net. For Allen, it was almost a shut out losing it with two minutes remaining.
The Canadiens, in two games against the high-scoring Edmonton Oilers — a team that has two of the best scorers in the world — beat them by a combined 8-2. The two players who are nearly impossible to hold off the board in 120 minutes of hockey got one point: McDavid with a point, and Draisaitl with none. In the standings, five points out of a possible six to start the season for Montreal, so there certainly is nothing to put in this Wilde Goats space.
There is a theory in sports that you can only go so far as your best players take you. So how far can this Montreal Canadiens team go? How much success can this team actually have?
For the answer we have to look at NHL history to what type of composition wins a Stanley Cup. The key components to a championship are winning the middle, and a pair of 30 minute stud defencemen.
Historically, the champions have a dominating player at the centre position. Joe Sakic, Peter Forsberg, Pavel Datsyuk, Patrice Bergeron, Anze Kopitar, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Messier, Vincent Lecavalier are some and the list is endless. In fact, you can find a dominating centre almost every single year. Only the New Jersey Devils and St. Louis Blues, which won their cups with depth instead of stars, are champions without a dominating centre.
Without a dominating defensive pair as well, a team is also not likely to hold the cup overhead. One pair on for 30 minutes out of 60 controls an entire game, if they’re good enough.
What is not in the absolute musts of a champion strangely is a high pedigree goalie. History has shown that it is more about who is hot at the right time. There are a ton of cup champion goalies that won’t get into the Hall of Fame unless they pay for a ticket. For one year, Antti Niemi was good enough to win a cup. For one year, Jordan Binnington got hot enough to win a cup. The goalie position seems to be all about timing for the playoffs, more than a long standing pedigree. Not saying that pedigree will hurt you, but it isn’t a must-have in the cup winning formula.
With all of that as a backdrop, where do the Canadiens stand?
Firstly, they have the pedigree goalie, but they need also him to get hot. Pedigree is nothing, if by the playoffs you’ve played so many games that you are exhausted and physically beaten. Therefore, this season is the best opportunity for Carey Price to carry a team far since he joined the league. Two reasons: Price has a good back-up goalie to relieve him in Jake Allen, and the season is only 56 games instead of 82. These two reasons could give Price the chance to be at his very best both in mind and body when the post-season begins.
On defence, the Habs do not have a 30-minute pair who can dominate a game, but they do have the most talent that they have had on the blue line overall in a long time. Shea Weber is playing strong hockey. Ben Chiarot is playing the best hockey of his career. Alexander Romanov may just be a 30-minute defensive stud in years to come. Jeff Petry keeps getting better as he ages. It’s a deep and talented defence. As far as not having a 30-minute pair, look at the first pairs around the North Division. The best Corsi so far is Jake Muzzin and Justin Holl of the Leafs. Looking at the North Division, there is no dominating pair. The Canadiens are not at all overmatched trying to progress to the final four this season with a deep look into goaltenders and defensemen.
That brings us to the only question mark: the dreaded win the middle; win the game. The centres of the Canadiens will have to grow this season to win that middle of the ice against some of the best in the league. Nick Suzuki is improving so quickly, but he is not upper echelon yet. Jesperi Kotkaniemi is making strides as well, but he is not at the point where he can win the middle. Philip Danault is the most proven in that area, but more in a defensive way.
While you can’t see anyone better than Carey Price in the North Division, and you can’t see anyone better than Shea Weber and Ben Chiarot, and even Alexander Romanov instead of Chiarot by season’s end on the top pair, you can not say the same at centre.
In Toronto, you have players who can take a game by the scruff of the neck like Auston Matthews and John Tavares. In Edmonton, you have Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl. In Vancouver, you have Elias Pettersson and Bo Horvat. In Winnipeg, you have Mark Scheifele. In Calgary, you have Sean Monahan. All over the north, there are big challenges in front of the young Montreal centres, and maybe this year, they just can’t compete against the Matthews of the hockey world to get it done.
The rebuttal will be that no one has better depth than the Canadiens and in the regular season, depth is more important. In the playoffs, the benches get shortened — the fourth line, and the third pair get their minutes cut down a lot so the stars can shine. This is just the way it has been for all of hockey history. In the last 50 years, one can only point to the Blues recently and the Devils back in the dreadful trap era of teams winning with depth instead of star power.
Star power wins cups. Depth excels in the regular season.
So where do the Canadiens stand then? In goal, and on defence they are right in the mix as the best. At the centre position, they fall short overall in experience and star power. At least for now, until we see the eventual ceiling of Nick Suzuki.
With this season being a final four berth by beating just the other teams from Canada, the feeling here is the Montreal Canadiens are going to win the North and a berth into the conference finals.
It revolves around health obviously, but not being able to predict who stays healthy and who gets either injured or COVID-19 for the big game, this appears to be the Canadiens year. It hinges so much on Nick Suzuki. He has to be able to compete with Matthews and Horvat and the rest.
But when he can’t, look for Price to be best, and his first pair to be one of the best as well.
They aren’t ready for a cup run when they face teams like Colorado and Tampa who clearly have all of the vital components, but looking around Canada at the goaltending and defence as inferior to the Canadiens, and the centre position as the only Canadiens’ weakness, Montreal’s chance is as good or better than any other team in the North to get to the final four.
So you heard it here first: the Montreal Canadiens will make it to the conference finals.