One loss to the Ottawa Senators Thursday was a result that simply happens through the course of a season. Ten wins out of ten games against the lowly Senators was simply not going to happen.
Sports is just not that lopsided. However, two losses in three days would be cause for concern. The two met again on Saturday afternoon, this time in Ottawa. Montreal did not want to get into bad habits and needed to respond with a solid effort to prove their standing is accurate.
The Canadiens won 2-1, but not without difficulty.
Quite simply, without the solid goaltending of Jake Allen, this game was a loss. Allen stopped 34 of 35 shots in the afternoon as the Senators absolutely took the game to the Canadiens in the second half. At one point through the last half, shots on goal favoured Ottawa 22-4. Allen proved how important Marc Bergevin’s decision was to finally have a quality back-up goalie. Allen’s save percentage was .930 before the afternoon tilt. It was .971 in this game. Allen is a top five goalie in the league so far this season.
The Canadiens power play has been on a 1-for-16 run recently. It had stalled. Cue the changes to the first power play unit. Shea Weber was taken off the first unit as they were just relying on him too much. Jeff Petry was at the point along with Jonathan Drouin. In front of the net, to create the screen, was Corey Perry. The Canadiens started with 45 perfect seconds of pressure that culminated with Jeff Petry taking a point shot that was screened perfectly by Perry. An accurate shot and a net front presence. Sometimes it is not all that complicated. Petry is on a remarkable run to start the season. He has six goals in 11 games. He is one of the best defenceman in all of hockey.
Nick Suzuki promised, after what he called his worst game of the season, that he would be better on Saturday. He was true to his word. Suzuki had some enormous plays late in the game to preserve the lead for Montreal. With the Senators on a late power play, Suzuki drew a penalty with hard work to nullify the extra-man attack from Ottawa. In the last minute of the game, it was Suzuki who took two vital draws and he won them both.
Face-off numbers get a lot of attention, and some of it is not warranted. Losing face-offs is irrelevant when you are not in a tight game, or it’s the neutral zone, or you might even want the offensive zone draw to be lost so you can put down low pressure on your opponent. It’s more vital to watch who wins the key ones, when the game is on the line, and Suzuki did just that.
The bottom line is wins and the Canadiens achieved their goal with a terrific play for the important goal in the third period. Jonathan Drouin with streaking speed on the dump-in to earn a shot, then Suzuki with some traffic to force a second shot, and the rebound then went to Josh Anderson who roofed it for the winning goal.
It was yet another point for Suzuki. It was yet another goal for Anderson, who now has eight this season for Montreal. The dividends of that trade with the Blue Jackets cannot be overstated. Where would the Habs be without his eight goals? Remarkable trade, it seems.
This was a game that is difficult to evaluate overall. The Canadiens were dominated for large stretches of this contest. They were second on the puck many times. They didn’t earn a single breakaway or 2-on-1 odd-man rush.
When they played the Vancouver Canucks and Edmonton Oilers, they earned ten per game. This may be the blueprint to give the Canadiens fits. Play the contest with few high-energy events. Make sure that Montreal has no odd-man rushes. Play the contest to the outside. This is how Claude Julien coached the Canadiens just about every year that he has been in Montreal.
Now he has to figure out how to turn the tables and create more than his opponent wants to allow. It’s going to be interesting to see how Montreal is able to score when Vancouver and Edmonton tighten up their game plans. Montreal should not expect so many free looks as four breakaways a game.
Hockey is not won like that, and it won’t be so easy for the Habs from here on. As well, expect Ottawa to play every game with this much focus on defence. It’s winning hockey, especially when you are the less talented team.
This is a game to re-evaluate just how good the Canadiens are. It’s still too early to say. A great team does not struggle this much with a team like Ottawa; they got absolutely rocked by Edmonton and Vancouver.
However, maybe Ottawa is also processing how to compete and win more effectively. It’s early. Even this assessment feels muddled because it is early. All we can do is wait for more clarity, but, a word of caution is in order after these back-to-back games that the parade excitement might be a bit premature.
Cole Caufield keeps forcing us to revisit his exploits after just about every game. The Montreal Canadiens first round draft choice continues to light up the NCAA world with his offensive ability. The Wisconsin Badgers will surely move into the top ten in the rankings after an impressive 4-1 win over the number two team in the nation: the Minnesota Golden Gophers.
Caufield keyed the victory with two more goals and they were gorgeous. The first was a breakaway when he seemed to have shot early, but he found five-hole before the goalie was set and ready. His second goal was a 2-on-1 when he received the pass, but rather than try to one-time it, he was more concerned about shot location. He fired it perfectly, just under the bar, while the goalie was moving across the net. It was two moments of goal scoring perfection.
The numbers now are extraordinary for Caufield this season. In only 19 games, Caufield has 30 points. He has 16 goals in 19 games. He was told by many that he had a disappointing World Junior Tournament, even though he won a gold medal. He has responded with 18 points in his last nine games. He has upped his game even more, and he is basically unstoppable at the college level right now.
He will be a finalist for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s best player. What’s interesting though in his battle to actually win the award is that one of his biggest rivals is the goalie that he schooled twice on Friday night.
Minnesota’s Jack Lafontaine has a .943 save percentage this season. When it’s a goalie and a forward in a battle for an award, it’s very difficult to parse who deserves it since they share no categories of comparison. The only way is sometimes a head-to-head, and in this regard, the clear winner on Friday was Caufield.
Lafontaine gets another chance to redeem himself in their head-to-head battle on Saturday night. If Caufield can once again dominate, then that would go a long way in his attempt to win such a prestigious award. Either way, it’s been a remarkable season for Caufield.
The next question is where does he slot in for the Canadiens and when. The chorus is growing that he is now NHL ready. One could also argue that some seasoning in the pros in Laval couldn’t hurt either.
Next season, if they cannot, or choose not, to come to terms with unrestricted free agent Tomas Tatar, then a spot on that line for Caufield is possible.
It would be a great line for Caufield to start his career on. Philip Danault is one of the premier two-way centres in hockey who could make sure that he was covering the defensive side of the puck.
Brendan Gallagher is a strong forechecker who wins a lot of puck battles. A great forward line, generally speaking, has a finisher, a passer, and a forechecker: win the puck, pass the puck, shoot the puck. Caufield could do no better in the start of his career than being the finisher on that line.
It’s exciting to watch the progression. It will be exciting to see the eventual destination soon.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.