With only one win in the last five games, the Montreal Canadiens felt that they had to change their fortunes against the Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre on Monday night. They needed one of their best efforts of the season and they got it. It was a 4-2 win for the Canadiens to solidify their hold of the final playoff spot in the North Division.
Auston Matthews is such a force in the NHL right now that you are not going to stop him, but you can try your best by putting your best out there to contain him. Dominique Ducharme was looking for a match-up where Phillip Danault’s line was against Matthews’ line, and when they could get the match-up, it was advantage Canadiens. When they couldn’t, like when Nick Suzuki was on, it was domination Matthews and a quick goal.
Danault, even with Brendan Gallagher on the injured list, is the driving force behind some of the best defensive hockey in Montreal in recent memory. Danault with Tomas Tatar and Gallagher has been one of the top five lines this season in all analytics. In this one, it was Paul Byron who took Gallagher’s spot on the right side and he was stellar. Tatar scored the first goal in the game’s first minutes.
This is not going to be an easy signing to keep Danault and Tatar, but the onus is on GM Marc Bergevin to find a way. Both players have hockey left in them. When you have one of the best lines in the league, you have to find a way to keep it going.
The defensive pairings were definitely better in this contest as the changes were finally made to have a puck-mover and a stay-at-home on each partnership. Shea Weber was with Brett Kulak. It was Kulak who made a massive play in this one with the score tied 2-2 late in the second. He blocked a shot to save what looked like a goal and then he joined a rush for a 2-on-1 in which Josh Anderson fired the shot home for the Canadiens to regain the lead that they had lost. Another partnership was Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson, who had been so good all season together. The changes made sense and the rewards were immediate as the Canadiens put in a good showing against the class of the North Division.
With the GM acquiring two depth defencemen at the deadline, the worry here is that they will push Alexander Romanov down the depth chart right into the press box. That would be a terrible shame and another example of confusing NHL hierarchy. This is exactly the type of season you want to see from a rookie on the blue line making a big jump from an inferior league. Romanov does make the odd error, of course, but mostly he has been stellar. In the third period, he was strong. At one point, Mitch Marner was doing what he does best, and then Romanov laid him out with a massive hit. In the last minute, Romanov was on the ice preserving the lead, being very physical with Matthews, who did not like it much. Romanov needs to keep playing regular duty. The management needs to keep allowing him to grow at this level. He is doing fine. If you feel you have to sit someone, then do it fairly and sit someone not playing as well as he is, which is almost everyone. His experience needs to continue if you want him to rise to a more comfortable level. Next year, with more comfort, he will begin to show more offence. He won’t be a 50-point player by any stretch, but anyone who has seen him knows that he has more offence on his stick than this. They also know that he can be more of a puck-mover than this as well. Let the maturity continue. The organization will be rewarded if they do.
After hoping that Eric Staal could still play like he was 26-years-old again, the coaching staff could see that he didn’t have the ability to keep up. He was dropped to the fourth line, where he also had some issues on Monday night. His ice time among the four centres was notably lower than the others. It’s difficult to know what the role of Staal will be. If he is not able to centre the fourth line, then a move to the wing might be in order. Jake Evans was actually playing his best hockey of the season prior to Staal’s arrival from his quarantine, when Evans knew already that the trade had been made. Evans deserves his spot back as the fourth line centre. The long-term future at centre is going to be strong enough without Staal. It has Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Danault, Suzuki, and Evans, with Ryan Poehling waiting for his promotion eventually. Staal is definitely a move to fill a short-term need, but it’s not clear yet that he can fill it at all. And if you’ve been paying attention, you know that Kotkaniemi has been winning face-offs in the last month at an excellent rate. Let’s allow a bit more time to pass before too much criticism of Staal as the first days on a new team can be difficult, but, so far, it is not stellar.
There’s a moment late in this one with the Habs up 3-2 with a chance to seal the win. Josh Anderson has just missed a gimme on a sweet pass from Kotkaniemi. The puck comes back out to the slot where Jonathan Drouin has a chance, but he can’t finish either. Here’s the thing though: Drouin does a fly-by. He’s got two goals this season. Why? Because he’s too often doing fly-bys. You have to stay in the crease, like Gallagher does, to score goals. You can’t time your moment in the crease area for one-tenth of a second hoping the puck comes out at that precise moment, then you leave the area. You have to stay in the area for as long as it takes. That’s probably going to hurt though. They’re going to cross-check you across the back. That hurts. They’re going to slash you across the wrist. That also hurts. They’re going punch you in the face. That hurts too. Goals often mean pain. You have to sacrifice. Fly-bys don’t cut it. This doesn’t cut it.
General Manager Marc Bergevin believes you need eight or nine NHL-ready defencemen in the playoffs. He acquired two in Jon Merrill from the Detroit Red Wings and Erik Gustafsson from the Philadelphia Flyers.
Neither of these two players are going to move the needle of the Canadiens playoff fortunes too significantly.
One assumes that Merrill will be Alexander Romanov’s new partner on the left side, replacing Victor Mete, who was picked up off the waiver wire by the Ottawa Senators. Merrill is somehow a plus player on a team that has a minus 43 goal differential. That seems like one of the miracles of the 2021 season.
Gustafsson is a couple of years removed from a 60 point season. This year, however, he has been a nightmare for the Flyers from all reports. He has the worst expected goals percentage on the entire Flyers team and that’s not saying much, as they are embarrassingly bad on defence. Both players must finish a seven-day quarantine before being allowed to play in Canada.
So all in all, rather quiet from the GM and that’s alright because it would have been an error to load up on Monday, sacrificing top prospects when the club is too young at the centre position to imagine a deep playoff run.
It’s difficult to hear it, but 20-year-old centres are not ready to carry the load yet. This team is not getting close to the promised land until the centres are more mature overall down the middle.
The Canadiens window looks outstanding in two or three seasons, but right now, the better idea is patience, and Bergevin showed it.
He will make the playoffs this season, allowing him to keep his job. That seems almost assured with Calgary and Vancouver so far behind and running out of season.
The following years, Bergevin will get Cole Caufield, Ryan Poehling, Jordan Harris, Mattias Norlinder, Jayden Struble, and Kaiden Guhle to join the line-up of veterans who will all still be viable except two. Those two ageing vets moving on will mean $18 million off the books to spend on better assets — perhaps an elite game-breaker.
The window is opening nice and wide for the Canadiens. This season they are competitive and the playoffs can produce upsets, but the logical prediction of events is that the future is brighter than today. The future looks outstanding and that’s alright when the present produces wins too, though not quite championship aspirations.