The Montreal Canadiens beat the Calgary Flames easily in the first of their back-to-back series last week, but then the Flames came back to take the second game.
It’s not the formula for success to split a two game series. You must, if you have high hopes, win every series. If it’s a two-game set, then win both. If it’s a three-game set, win two of three.
So after easily beating the Vancouver Canucks Monday night, the Canadiens had to start changing the formula that will mean first place in the North Division at the end of the year: win two of two, win two of three, win three of four. On Tuesday night, like Calgary in the second game, you knew the Vancouver Canucks would put in a better showing.
In the end, Vancouver was much better, but the Canadiens still won by a count of 5-3.
The second best line in the entire hockey league is Nick Suzuki, Jonathan Drouin and Josh Anderson, according to Expected Goal Percentage which is the go-to analytic at this time.
Nick Suzuki continues to be a point-per-game player this season. In this one, Suzuki picked up two assists to move to 11 points on the season in 10 games. It’s remarkable for a second-year player like Suzuki to not only count so many points, but his two-way play is outstanding. You don’t get to the top of the Expected Goals Percentage statistic doing well offensively, but doing poorly defensively. You have to own the entire ice.
Anderson continues to make GM Marc Bergevin look like a genius. He has a combination of strength and speed that very few players in the league have. His first goal of two in the first period, Anderson fights off his check with almost laughable ease to count. His second goal showed terrific stick skill as he deflected a Brett Kulak point shot.
Drouin didn’t get a point on either goal, but he set up the first one with tremendous play. All three working beautifully together.
The leading goal scorer in the NHL has nine, as Connor McDavid and Brock Boeser were passed for the lead Tuesday night by Tyler Toffoli.
It’s been a long time since a Montreal player was leading anything. Of Toffoli’s nine goals, eight are against the Canucks. His second goal in the second period was a one-man effort of extraordinary talent. He beat the defender Jordie Benn one-on-one, then hit a backhander to the roof of the net that was as good as a player can actually do in the sport.
You actually can’t see better than this. His first goal in the second period was a deft deflection of a Joel Edmundson point shot. It was the kind of shot that said, “Tip this.”
Edmundson wasn’t making any attempt to beat the goalie, but he knew Toffoli could. This team is communicating so well, doing so many little things correctly. This is what it looks like when there is talent. You don’t do the little things right when you can’t do the big things, either.
Refinement is talent. One only comes because the other is naturally there. What a sight it is to watch this team sometimes, considering what we have watched for a long time in Montreal. It’s such a different feeling.
The Canadiens overuse the Shea Weber slap shot on their power play. It’s ridiculous, really. It’s a 5-on-3 for 50 seconds and the five Canadiens pass it around for 25 seconds, only to have Weber shoot a one-time slap shot from 35 feet that the goalie is ready for.
Surely there’s a way to get inside the defensive construction of the Canucks more effectively than to settle for a slap shot from a poor angle that everyone can see is coming from Moose Jaw.
It’s a force of habit at this point. It’s like a default action in the code. What the construction should be is a structure that seems to be indicating a Weber shot is coming, but another option is chosen. A little bit of duplicity goes a long way at this level of hockey, when everyone is pre-scouting everyone else. Perhaps this seems a little bit of a trifle and that would be the case 5-on-4 perhaps, but 5-on-3, surely, something better can be done.
The Canucks got on the board in the second period when Victor Mete lost a puck battle in the corner. He didn’t have enough strength. Mete has all the speed he needs, but at the NHL level, he loses battles. He didn’t lose his man in front of the net. That fault belongs to Jeff Petry, but none of that happens if Mete wins the puck battle. That’s just the way it is.
The Canadiens have allowed three goals since Mete joined the line-up. He has been on the ice for all three of those goals.
Alexander Romanov was left out of the lineup for the first time in his career. If it was for a mistake in the game Monday night that led to a goal on Carey Price in the first period, that’s a heck of a punishment for a turnover when the ensuing shot should have been stopped.
There are two schools of thought here as far as teaching a player a lesson. If he doesn’t sit, then he will feel as if there is no punishment for mistakes. The other school says that if you punish a player for one mistake, then he will play with fear that if he makes another mistake, he will be more severely punished.
Either way, it’s not a perfect scenario. Naturally, you would prefer if the player didn’t make the mistake.
Perhaps, the difficult pill to swallow revolves around the hypocrisy of punishment overall in hockey circles. Shea Weber got walked the other game. Joel Edmundson wouldn’t have played after opening night if that abysmal performance was up for a doling out of punishment. If it’s good for one, then it should be good for the other.
Fairness and equality is the bedrock on which a coach builds his credibility.
Romanov must be feeling as if this is a raw deal. He loves to play the game, and he won’t take kindly to sitting one out, so Victor Mete can play. Mete did nothing good here in this story, but complain to his agent that he wasn’t playing enough. That’s hardly fair in the grand scheme of the world. That a player complains and then takes another player’s spot who was putting in outstanding hockey for the most part.
In fact, head coach Claude Julien said this afternoon that he wanted to rotate the three bottom pair defenders in to the two spots. Does that mean if Cale Fleury’s agent now complains that he is not playing enough that that turns into four defenders rotating into two spots? Complaining seems a powerful tool. Maybe Romanov should complain as well.
Would Julien try to convince anyone that Romanov was suddenly struggling and his spot should not be assured? For if that is Julien’s point, then the counterpoint is Romanov had the fourth highest ice time on the team. Hardly the statistic that says better take him out of the lineup because he’s not playing well.
Add to that that the Canadiens won the game on Monday, with the rule often being not to change the lineup after a victory. What is the reward for victory then? At least with Mete drawing in for Brett Kulak on Monday, you could argue that the team lost the game before on Saturday, so a change was inspirational.
This is an awfully short leash for a young player to have to live with. Imagine if Quinn Hughes had a leash that short. After Monday night’s game where he was beaten soundly it seemed on every single shift, what would his future be? Julien would have Hughes in the video room until April.
In Vancouver, Hughes’ future is he keeps playing because they will take the errors for the lessons learned. They will take the mistakes, so he can be a much better player defensively than he is now. They are investing in his future.
It may not be anything this new rotation, but the question needs to be asked: Has the veteran deserved this ice because he’s a veteran, or because he is the better player? Is the rookie being punished, because he’s the poorer player. If he is the poorer player, why is his ice time so high?
The answer is not known. Maybe, Mete has a deal pending, if he plays and plays well. Maybe, there’s a reason behind the scenes that’s a secret for whatever reason. We don’t know the answer, but when a player like Romanov who has been a part of a winning line-up gets taken out, you, at least, have to ask the questions.
This doesn’t sit right. For now all we can do is wait, because time usually provides clarity in moments such as these.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.