It’s a condensed schedule this season as they try to jam in as many games as possible in a short amount of time, but it sure did not feel like it last week. No games for seven days for Montreal meant either the Canadiens would be rusty or fresh as they took on the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre Saturday night. Toronto is in first place and the best team in hockey at the moment, so a true test it was again. The Canadiens were no match for Toronto as the Leafs won again by a 5-3 count.
- What a trade! Max Domi has moved on to the fourth line on the wing in Columbus and he is struggling so much. Josh Anderson is on the first line and leading the Canadiens in goals. It’s not just the goals though for Anderson. It’s everything. When a player brings that much size with skating speed, there are times when he can not be defended. Anderson also has a mean streak using that big body to crush his opponent on a regular basis. That makes the Habs an ice-pack team, which had been a real problem over the last few years. The opponent has to be respectful. They have to worry that a hit could be coming when they go back to get the puck. That hurries their reaction and forces mistakes. That can’t be directly attributed to Anderson, but he is the one putting that dark thought in their heads. The only question for this long-term contract is his health. Surely, he will be injured at some point in the deal. Seven years is a long time. However, if he is healthy and playing like this for most of the deal, then this is one heck of a move from the Montreal GM Marc Bergevin. He’s made a lot of terrific trades. Let the debate begin where this trade will rank in the long list of thefts.
- When you are a head coach you have some hard decisions to make sometimes. You bench a player to wake him up, and you hope he responds for you. You take a player out of the line-up completely and you hope that you don’t lose him emotionally. So Claude Julien had to be thrilled with the way his two players responded that had been harshly criticized this past week. Tomas Tatar responded beautifully to his missed game. He had a clear breakaway chance in the first period. In the second period, he freed Jesperi Kotkaniemi on a breakaway for Montreal to get on the board. Right after that, it was the other player who not only was taken out of the line-up, but was put on waivers as well, Paul Byron scored on the backhand and it was 2-2. Byron’s excitement was obvious. He was thrilled to get back into the good graces with a beautiful goal.
- The best centre on the club in this one was Kotkaniemi. He was around the puck all night. He showed better strength on his skates at times, keeping up to make plays instead of falling down. This is a vital aspect of his game that needs to improve. It is encouraging to see that he was able to win some puck battles. Besides the goal, he also had a couple of other clean looks.
- The Montreal Canadiens 5-on-5 are a slightly better team than the Toronto Maple Leafs. If they meet in the playoffs, then the Habs better hope the referees put the whistles away, because if it becomes a special teams series, then the Canadiens do not have a realistic chance. The Leafs are unstoppable on the power play with Auston Matthews, the wheel man, letting go the best shot in hockey. Matthews has a shot so good that, on occasion, it is unstoppable, like early in the second period. The Leafs scored two power play goals when they had just under two minutes starting with a 5-on-3 chance. Still, in the second period, it was Matthews again with a rocket of a shot as he is just a goal-scoring machine. Carey Price was outstanding in the first, but the goals in the second with the power play, no goalie in the world can stop. The Leafs can create so incredibly well with the extra man. Claude Julien better preach discipline the rest of this season, because the major roadblock stopping the Habs from going to the final four is special teams hockey from the Maple Leafs. If there are few power plays, the Canadiens are a slightly favoured bet. If Matthews is shooting a lot with an extra man, the Leafs are a clear favourite. Another factor to consider is the benches get shortened in a playoff series. If they should meet in the post-season, the best players are on the ice even more as game-changers. The Canadiens do not have an answer to elite talents, like Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner, on their roster. The Montreal head coach has some work to do. Julien has to find an idea to get the Leafs’ best off their game. Montreal has more depth. The Leafs have the stars. That’s the battle: neutralize the stars.
- The longer this season rolls on, the longer it feels like the Habs don’t have enough skill at defence. A team can not be elite with only one puck mover among the six defenders. Alexander Romanov will one day be a puck mover, but not yet. Victor Mete is a puck mover, but he is in and out of the line-up because of other deficiencies. The truth is that the Canadiens want to play a modern game of fast-moving transitions to take advantage of speedy forwards, but they only have Jeff Petry on their roster to do that at the moment. Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber are fine when the possession is already established in front of Price. They both hit well. They both win puck battles. They both clean out the front of the net. They both make smart decisions. However, there is an old adage in hockey that if you are playing in front of your own goal more than in front of the other goal, you are probably not going to like the result at the end of the night. There just isn’t enough transition game from the defence on this supposed transition team. That is going to have to be addressed for the Canadiens to get to the next level. Cale Makar’s don’t just happen though. It won’t be easy to find that player, but that’s the challenge. The club has six straight games with two goals or fewer, and it feels like the issue is little is coming easily now. They have to work down low and create traffic for chances. Very little is coming on the rush. They need to create more on the rush, so they need the puck in flight.
The Laval Rocket completed three wins out of four games against the Belleville Senators on Friday night. It was domination from start to finish, and fans will be excited who did the dominating. You always want to see your top prospects shine and they did. Ryan Poehling was a force. Poehling counted one goal and one assist in the 5-2 win. The key for Poehling in his next game is to not fall back. Poehling has a habit of looking like he’s got everything he needs to be an NHLer one game, and then he looks like he should still be in college at Saint Cloud State in the next game. He must maintain that drive and focus. He has the skills. He needs to bring them every night now.
Another player who shone again was Jessi Ylonen. He’s an interesting prospect because he hasn’t played on small ice in North America, but he doesn’t seem bothered with the tighter spaces at all so far in Montreal. Ylonen had two assists in the contest on the line with Poehling, and they gelled beautifully. Ylonen has amazing skating speed, and that can translate to NHL success. He also has great stick skills with that motor running in fifth gear. He’s an outside shot to be an NHLer, but these kids can surprise you. You just keep letting them play games, and see if they can keep figuring out how to develop with some good tutelage. No one knows the ceiling, including the player, so let them go and see where they land.
The final prospect in action that excites Montreal fans was Cole Caufield. He continues to snipe. His goal against Notre Dame on Friday night in a 4-2 win was a typical Caufield goal. He picked the top corner so easily. What’s interesting with Caufield is most of his goals are scored in the top corners. It’s the hardest of shots to place, but he finds it with the greatest of ease with ridiculous power.
What’s also interesting is all goalies are adopting the new style of tending goal. It’s the top corner that the goalies are giving the shooter now. Goalies are playing the law of averages. They take away the entire lower part of the net and give the shooter that tiny space over the shoulders. This math is better for the goalie than the old way of giving the shooter all corners in equal measure. It’s math that makes sense, because only the best NHL shooters can find just under the bar. It will be fascinating to see how Caufield can execute this at an NHL level.
After another goal Saturday in a Wisconsin shootout loss, Caufield’s numbers now are 19 goals and 18 assists in 24 games. He equals his total of goals in his freshman campaign at Wisconsin in 36 games. As amazing as his freshman year was, this year is blowing last year away. That’s why Caufield is one of the co-favourites to win the Hobey Baker Award. His top competition is Dryden McKay of Minnesota State. He has a stellar .947 save percentage in 15 games this season. Caufield’s other big challenge for the award could be his Wisconsin teammate, Dylan Holloway. The sophomore centre actually has a better point per game than Caufield, but he missed a third of the season at the World Junior Championship in Edmonton.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.