With three losses in the last four games, it was time for the Montreal Canadiens to show whether they belong with Toronto at the top, or with Winnipeg, Edmonton, and Calgary in the middle. The Canadiens are a better team than last season, but how much better?
They had to prove something against Toronto, and while Saturday night sure had its rocky moments, Montreal did come through with two late goals to win 2-1.
It was interesting to note that the best pairing on the Canadiens in this one was Victor Mete and Alexander Romanov. Both of these players have the ability to get the puck up and out quickly. Mete was particularly effective with his skating on the rush, and how well he was able to find a pass to clear the zone. It’s always interesting to note that some games Mete isn’t strong enough and doesn’t win puck battles.
He defers to defenders who are slower like Chiarot and Weber who look good because they can win those battles and clear bodies out. Mete will never be a big puck winner in the corner, or clear out a big body very well in front, but when he gets the puck, he’s going to get the job done better than just about anyone on the team.
A good team takes all kinds, and there’s a spot for Mete’s kind. There’s a spot for Mete.
The second ranked line in the entire NHL by Expected Goals Percentage is Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher and Philip Danault. So it was quite surprising to see Tatar was a healthy scratch.
Sometimes, you can replace a winger on a great line and not change the way that the line dominates the overall sheet of ice. That was the gamble that the head coach Claude Julien took in Toronto Saturday. He believed that the line could still be dominant with Danault at centre playing a good two-way game, but then also benefit from the outstanding finish that Toffoli has around the net. The gamble paid off midway through the third period. It was Gallagher who won the puck along the wall. He passed it to Danault who went cross crease to Toffoli. He absolutely roofed it beautifully for his tenth goal of the season. All three players working together perfectly for the goal.
With three minutes remaining, they struck again. Toffoli starts it with the pass to the point. Jeff Petry floats it toward the goal. Gallagher has position in front of the net and knocks it down, then fires it home upstairs. The line strikes twice as the Julien’s hunch pays off. It may not mean much this season who plays there because Tatar is still on the team, but next season if Toffoli on that line means Expected Goals Percentage domination continues for that Danault line, then there’s a solid solution for next year. That is, if there is no money for Tatar.
A team without Tatar on it, but Toffoli on the top line leaves room for Cole Caufield to stick with the club on the third line with Jesperi Kotkaniemi. This wasn’t just a bad night for Tatar in that he was a healthy scratch. It was also a bad night when he saw that his replacement did pretty well. That’s hockey in the cap world.
Carey Price had to be Mr. Saturday Night in this one. He was needed and he provided.
His save percentage for the season was .896. No one was satisfied, and that sure included number 31. He came through big. His club was second best for the first 35 minutes. He had to be strong while Toronto dominated. Finally, his club found its legs and got back into the contest in the third period. He allowed only the one goal and his save percentage for the win was .955.
This was his best game of the season. He stole this one.
Better players forecheck better. That’s why the hole in the Canadiens line-up of having a high quality puck-moving defenceman becomes more obvious when they play better teams. Ben Chiarot is a good NHL defender, so is Shea Weber, so is Joel Edmundson.
They’re all talented enough, but when three of them are on your first two pairs, you are missing a pairing for about 23 minutes of ice time per game that has a puck mover. Too often during this slump the Canadiens are hemmed in their own zone. The defender has it, but before he can contemplate and execute his pass, a good forechecker has already arrived, and the cycle continues. The Maple Leafs had a pretty healthy night of cycling in the Montreal end.
Montreal has a good roster, but it does miss this component. That PMD would be a quarterback on the power play, but more importantly, with a first pairing level of talent, this player could get the puck out and make sure that more hockey is being played in the attacking zone.
The Canadiens started this season like a hungry lion released from a cage. However, their results have not been the same in the last five. This has fans thinking that this is going to be the same script as last season and that this is a 24th place team again.
It is not. There are five new players this season that are better than the five that they replaced last year: Josh Anderson, Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson, Alexander Romanov, Jake Allen. These players are better than last year’s Jordan Weal, Nick Cousins, Cale Fleury, Xavier Ouellet, and Keith Kincaid.
There are also three centers who are improving from last season to this season: Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Jake Evans. You can throw in Corey Perry as well, if you would like. That’s eight assets that are better now than they were one year ago.
They are not last year’s team. They are not a 24th place team. The same thing that happened last season is not going to happen this season. Are they as good as Toronto? It does not appear as if they are. However, this team is significantly better in talent. If they can not find solutions to win again, it will not fall on the shoulders of these better players. They are better players. They will be better.
The score of 5-1 was magic this weekend as all three games of interest for Montreal Canadiens prospects ended with that count.
The Laval Rocket finally opened their season at the Bell Centre with two wins of 5-1 over the Belleville Senators. Friday night, it was Cayden Primeau who was in the net with not a lot to do and then on Saturday afternoon it was Michael McNiven who picked up the win. Yannick Veilleux led the way Saturday with two goals, and Joseph Blandisi had two goals on Friday.
The best performance for a top prospect was Jesse Ylonen who finally got to play a pro game in North America and he fit right in at the American Hockey League level. Ylonen has great skating speed and an ability to complete stick skills at that high speed. He could be an interesting prospect for Montreal after some seasoning in Laval.
The unfortunate 5-1 score in the mix was Wisconsin playing in Ann Arbor, Michigan against the Wolverines. It was seventh ranked in the country against eighth ranked, but it was not close as Michigan played its first game in three weeks and was outstanding. Cole Caufield had a seven game goal scoring streak ended as he did not get a sniff in this one. It was a surprisingly lopsided affair considering the Badgers were playing outstanding hockey heading in beating the Minnesota Golden Gophers, who were second ranked in the nation, twice in convincing fashion last weekend.
The Big Ten has been predictable in only one way this season, and that is that it is unpredictable. They’ll play again in Michigan on Sunday.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.