Thursday was the first of 10 meetings for the Montreal Canadiens against the Ottawa Senators this season.
On paper, it was clearly a mismatch — the top team in the league against the last-place team in the league. It was billed as one of those trap games — where you have to bring enthusiasm and hunger no matter who your opponent is because everyone is a professional.
And sure enough, the Canadiens did get trapped, losing 3-2 to the Senators.
The Philip Danault line that has been third best much of the season was the best in this one.
Brendan Gallagher had the highest hunger level in the contest. It’s no coincidence that he was the one fighting hard in front of the net to win a puck battle to open the scoring. Tomas Tatar had some jump as well.
The Canadiens now have more goals shorthanded than they had the entire season last year. Montreal has seven goals shorthanded after the Josh Anderson marker. That’s in 11 games — a remarkable accomplishment.
There will be no ‘most’ of anything this season, considering it is only a 56-game season instead of 82 games. That’s a shame, because if there were 82 games this season, the Habs would be on their way to challenging for the shorthanded goals record.
The most impressive part of the Canadiens’ game this season has been their forecheck. It has had an urgency to it that has not been seen in decades from a Montreal team. Usually, this season, the Habs have been relentless. As soon as a player from the opposing team touched the puck, there was a Canadiens player on him.
Not in this game. The Habs simply didn’t have any hunger on the forecheck. This is why they play the games: to show that if you’re not ready to fight, compete, sacrifice, it does not matter how much more talent you are supposed to have than your opponent.
The Senators came into the game to keep it safe, to park the bus, to trap the action. They were afraid of getting blown out. They were afraid of worst case scenarios, but handed the Habs one instead.
The Habs were not nearly as bad as many fans feel. There’s a lot of ScoreVision in the assessment of this one on social media. The Canadiens dominated the contest territorially, but they found a team that was playing it extremely safe. The Canadiens didn’t get a bushel of breakaways or a basket of two-on-one chances.
That’s been the hallmark of the season for Montreal, playing some very bad defensive teams who have given up a massive amount of odd-man chances like Vancouver has and Edmonton has. When there are no odd-man rushes, you have to establish zone presence and work a lot harder for the reward.
Expect Ottawa to play like this for nine more games. They can’t win at high-event hockey. Sorry, it’s not likely to ever be exciting against this Senators team this year. They’re going to park the bus for nine more games. It’s the only formula that they have any chance at success.
Can a shot be good, but the goalie should have had it at the same time?
Thomas Chabot’s shot was good to tie the game up at one, but it was also a shot that Carey Price usually saves. Tim Stutzle’s short side shot to make it 2-1 was also well taken, but again, it’s one that Price usually saves. In six starts before Ottawa on Thursday, Price was only a .903 save percentage. In this one, he was an .864. Through the course of the six games, his below-league average goaltending didn’t matter much, as he had not lost in regulation time.
In this one, it did matter. Price needed to make some saves. Price entered the game as the 33rd ranked goalie in the league. Will he improve from here? He’s going to need to because sub-900 can be hidden for a while as an issue, but in the long run, you’re not winning big games against strong competition with that number.
The criticism over the years for Marc Bergevin’s work is appropriate. The standings speak for themselves. He will tell you the same thing: missing the playoffs more years than making them is not success. It’s important to not rewrite history, but to acknowledge it now as history. Bergevin won a lot of trades, but never built a great team. That was his Achilles heal. He didn’t build a team.
Now he has built a team. Now the Montreal Canadiens are a team.
People learn how to be better at their jobs over time. It’s not fair to evaluate Bergevin by citing only the events of a long-ago past. The evaluation continues.
Bergevin three years ago saw that he had these important holes on his team: no one to dominate the game down the middle, weakness on the first pairing and overall on the blue line, size as his team was too small overall, and a back-up goalie that can win a game.
He and his staff then went about the work of filling all of those holes.
We start at centre where the team has a budding star in Nick Suzuki, another budding strong two-way centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi, a young player in Jake Evans playing high above his expected standing, and old reliable Philip Danault playing one of the best 200-foot games in hockey. That’s the best four centres that the Canadiens have iced since the 1990s.
Next issue was the blue line with not enough size or depth. In comes Ben Chiarot to fit on the first pair. In comes Joel Edmundson to provide some size. In comes Alexander Romanov to play a solid game offensively and defensively. Three huge changes providing size, intelligence, and puck moving.
Another issue on the whiteboard had to be the lack of size overall. So many of the same player. This team is a long cry from David Desharnais as the number one centre, or even Max Domi replacing him for a short spell down the middle. So many small players. Bergevin erased that whiteboard issue by acquiring Josh Anderson who is the type of winger that Montreal has needed for a long time. He also got a puck winner in Joel Armia. You can now count the small regular players at two and Brendan Gallagher and Paul Byron, though small, play big.
Finally, Bergevin addressed the issue of back-up goalie after finally understanding that Antti Niemi and any other goalie struggling on another team wasn’t going to suddenly come here and find the ability to stop the puck again. Bergevin found instead a top quality goalie in Jake Allen who is doing so well that, so far, he is even better than Carey Price.
Everyone on a good hockey team plays in their proper seat. They are slotted in at the ability that they have. This way they don’t have to face the best players on the other club when they don’t have that skill set, or have an amount of ice time that exhausts them mentally to make the right decisions. Everyone is comfortable where they are.
Examples are Brett Kulak who, if you let him play on the third pair, looks outstanding. Victor Mete is not going to thrive on the top pair trying to out-duel the best players in hockey. Artturi Lehkonen is another great example as he is playing his best hockey of his career on the fourth line; not being asked to score goals like a second line player.
Comfortable. They are all comfortable.
Slot the players where they belong and where they can handle their responsibilities and you have an excellent chance of building a perfect hockey team.
This is the best team that Marc Bergevin has built. People continue to learn how to do their jobs better. Bergevin is now one of the best in the game at his. The man knows how to build a team.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.