The Montreal Canadiens played a second straight game against the Jets in Winnipeg on Wednesday night. The Canadiens won the opener 4-2, and from game to game, it seemed like the Jets and Canadiens were evenly matched, with Winnipeg’s only real advantage so far their domination in 3-on-3 overtime.
And that’s where the Jets finally showed domination again in the extra time with a 4-3 win.
The most impressive defensive pairing by a margin as big as European ice was Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak. It wasn’t that long ago that they were a regular pairing and they were strong together. Kulak fell into the black book of Claude Julien for some reason.
I’m not sure why he was even singled out. He fell right out of the lineup, in fact. He made his way back in but on a steady third pair. Now he is back looking like he did at the best moments of his career.
The only pairing that wasn’t getting destroyed was this one. They were on for a goal against. It’s not to suggest they were perfect, but they were better than their peers. Kulak skates well enough that he can handle pressure. He makes good decisions. He has good vision when he moves the puck up ice for breakout passes.
Kulak needs to get more respect. He needs to be used more. In the last two games, Kulak has had much tougher matchups facing the number two line of Winnipeg, and he has not looked troubled at all.
The transformation of Carey Price since the firing of Stephane Waite has been remarkable. Price was an .898 in January, an .880 in February and in March he has been a 950. Price has recovered to get his overall save percentage into the solid .910 range.
Any losses these days certainly are not on him. You cannot ignore that the change is in perfect timing with hiring Sean Burke. Maybe Waite wasn’t that outstanding a technical coach after all. This can’t be that much of a coincidence. It’s too extraordinary.
There will be a lot of post-game talk again about the overtime player choices with the head coach choosing Philip Danault instead of a more offensive player, and the fact that the club is now zero for eight in the extra-session.
However, instead, it is worth praising the effort it took to get to overtime and the valuable point won in the standings.
The Canadiens battled hard on a night that it did not appear that they were in it, but they just kept on going. Brendan Gallagher went for 3-2 in the third period, and then with the goalie pulled it was Jonathan Drouin to Corey Perry to Tyler Toffoli for his 18th goal of the season. Toffoli’s 18 is second in the entire league. Yes, there was the disappointment of being an absolute disaster in OT, but there is also the encouragement of forcing that overtime.
It’s been written here recently — and now repeated too often — that there is a natural changing of the hierarchy of a team as a veteran ages. A player can’t do the same things at 35 as he could at 25. The sooner the organization realizes it and either changes the ice time, or the roster, the better for that organization.
For now, let’s start with ice time. Shea Weber needs to get less.
The pace of the game when he plays top-pairing minutes is simply too much for him, physically. The brain still works, but the legs are following his mental plan less every game. It was less than a minute into the contest when Weber was not quick enough, and the Jets scored after he was second on the puck on two attempts. Jeff Petry and his partner need to start the game. Petry needs to get the best left-side defender on the team to be paired with him.
Petry and Edmundson have the best plus-minus in the league. If you like analytics, the pair are strong there as well. Weber needs to drop down to second-line minutes, leaving the hardest matchups and the most time on the ice to Petry and Edmundson.
Weber should get Brett Kulak on the left side second pair. The coaching staff not admitting this difficult truth is costing points in the standings. In the long term, General Manager Marc Bergevin has an even more difficult decision to make because this is not going to work for the next five years. Father Time doesn’t fall back. It marches on, and it is unrelenting.
The defence was horrific on the second goal from the Jets as well. On this occasion, Alexander Romanov had possession with little pressure. He tried a pass to a covered Brendan Gallagher who had little chance to receive it successfully. Winnipeg took possession. After that, Xavier Ouellet tried to take the man in front of the net, and ended up running Carey Price over. That left Kyle Connor to score the easiest goal of his life.
It was like an empty-netter. The defence looked in trouble with the injury to Ben Chiarot — the second broken hand in his career from a fight. Not just from the absence of Chiarot, but also from how discombobulated the pairings are front to back.
Here is what happens when the defence is a mess like it is becoming more and more.
The coaches want to create a system of offensive ‘swarm’ style forechecking pressure. They want to take advantage of the speed of the forwards by creating a speed system. However, you can’t be aggressive, forecheck, make offensive decisions like pinching or playing deep in the attacking zone when as soon as you are caught up the ice, the puck is in your own net. It’s a scenario that kind of feeds on itself, and by the time it is done, you’re not playing a speed system, but hanging back playing the neutral zone trap to keep your defenders from too much responsibility.
This is a bit of a scary time, defensively, and there’s no guarantee that the snowball won’t pick up weight down the hill.
The next loss for Cole Caufield is the last game for Cole Caufield for the Wisconsin Badgers. Up next is the national tournament for Caufield, after the Badgers lost 6-4 in the Big Ten final to the Minnesota Golden Gophers. Caufield scored again against Minnesota to make it a remarkable 28 goals in 29 games this season. In the two games in the Big Ten tournament that Caufield played, he scored three times. He scored the tying goal and the overtime winner against Penn State to propel the Badgers to the final. Caufield is a lock for the Hobey Baker Award.
The national championship in U.S. college hockey is a 16-team event with four teams at four locations with a winner in each city heading to the Frozen Four. The Badgers will be a two seed in the event starting on March 26th. If they make it to the Frozen Four, that is the April 7-8 weekend.
The seedings and schedule for the national championship in the four cities will be announced this Sunday night. The Badgers head into the selection show ranked number five in the nation. Six teams get automatic bids after winning their conferences and ten receive at-large bids.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.