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Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens going wrong way with 4-1 loss to Calgary Flames

With nine games of NHL .500 between the Calgary Flames and Montreal Canadiens, only one or two wins for the Canadiens against the Flames in the five meetings they have left against each other should be enough to leave Calgary in the rear view mirror this season.

The math is horrendously against Calgary, so they must win at least four of five — and in the first one, the Flames got the job done 4-1.

Wilde Horses

Something about having your job on the line brings out the best in a player.

When Eric Staal was acquired, Jake Evans was the best forward on the team for a couple games. Now it’s Brett Kulak’s turn to react to the acquisition of two defenders. In 40 minutes of brutal hockey from Montreal, it was Kulak who provided the one shining light. Kulak took the puck at centre, then split two defenders on the rush to score his first goal in over two years.

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The last time he counted was March of 2019. This was a goal he can tell his grandkids about and not have to exaggerate. It was outstanding. It was still only 2-1 Calgary, but Kulak, at least, provided hope for Montreal to salvage something in the third period.

Read more: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens double the Toronto Maple Leafs

The only other horse was Jake Allen who is the Jacob deGrom of the NHL. Like deGrom, Allen gets absolutely no run support when he is in the net. He has a save percentage 12 points better than Carey Price, but Allen has a losing record.

Allen tried to keep his club in the contest as long as possible, but they just could not get him the required offence. Allen is the number one netminder on the club, by all metrics, except salary. Let’s hope they save him in the expansion draft. It would be a shame to lose him considering the talent, and more importantly, the value he brings to the salary cap.

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The Eric Staal experiment gets a grade of ‘D’ so far, but it’s trending toward an ‘F’.

He began on the second line and scored an overtime winner in his first game, but since then, it’s been a look of fatigue no matter how much he plays and with whom he plays. Staal was one fierce competitor in his day, but now the legs won’t let him show what the heart surely still wants to do.

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Read more: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens come up short against Winnipeg Jets with 4-2 loss

That’s what time does to a man.

At 36, there just is not enough game left in his legs anymore. Perhaps considering part of the issue seems to be fatigue, Staal should only play every couple of games, allowing some younger legs to step in. Add to the fact that the club is playing four games per week until the end of the season, that’s a tall task physically for even the most in-shape of the Canadiens.

It appears Staal needs his minutes managed. If so, when he is there can be some good moments.

Other than picking out Staal, the only other thing you can mention is that the entire team came out embarrassingly flat. They talked before the contest about having the killer instinct to put the Flames behind them. Calgary played a tough contest that went to overtime the previous night in Toronto, yet it was the Flames who controlled the game and had far more energy for the first two periods.

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Jake Allen was the key for Montreal to even stay in the game, or it would have been a lopsided score line. This club is an enigma. They are certainly more talented than they show on too many nights since their opening three weeks. Montreal is not even more than a .500 hockey team since the first 10 games of the season, when they got off to such a hot start experts were saying they were the best team in the division. With all of the additions to the line-up, they should be one of the best teams in the division.

To watch since the first 10, if three other teams hadn’t struggled so mightily, they wouldn’t even be earmarked for the playoffs. It will take a monumental collapse from Montreal to miss the post-season and an .800 percentage down the stretch from Calgary or Vancouver. The math is extremely in the Canadiens’ favour, but watching a team lose more than win, and relying on math, excites no one. They need to play a lot better or Andre Tourigny or Joel Bouchard is going to be the head coach next season.

There is nothing dynamic about this team that suggests taking the interim tag away from Dominique Ducharme. There’s plenty of hockey left, but this is trending strongly in the wrong direction.

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During the era of COVID-19, the best laid plans of mice and men often go awry. Montreal hockey fans were so excited to see Cole Caufield play for the Laval Rocket for the next three weeks in hopes of him playing well enough to earn a look this year with the Canadiens. 

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In his first two games, Caufield certainly did not disappoint. He scored three times and added one assist, dominating both games for the Rocket as they beat the Toronto Marlies. 

It was shaping up very well for Habs’ management as they could let Caufield get comfortable in the American Hockey League, and then bring him up for the NHL playoffs to watch and likely to participate. 

Well, the brakes have been put on that plan with great force. The Marlies have a COVID-19 situation and the games with the Rocket have been postponed for now, with the possibility that they could be cancelled. Laval only has one game on the schedule for the rest of the month. This is horrible news for player development. 

It’s not good for everyone, of course, but especially for two players. Ryan Poehling was playing the best hockey that he has played since being the MVP of the World Juniors. And it’s horrible news for the Caufield plan that likely needs to be changed. 

Read more: Gaudreau scores in overtime as Calgary Flames beat Toronto Maple Leafs 3-2

A player in development needs to have the puck on his stick a lot. You don’t learn unless you have the puck on your stick, which teaches you what to do in each moment. Skating up and down the wing without the puck at the NHL level is not actually good for development. Just because a player is up in the bigs, doesn’t mean that it is helpful. They must be involved to learn. 

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That’s why it has been recommended here that Caufield should stay in the minors for the rest of the regular season to develop his skill set at a higher level as he makes his progression toward the NHL. 

However, there is no learning to be done in a hotel room in Montreal. Having Caufield simply sit around with nothing to do does not develop his skills at all. 

Bring him up. He needs to play. Even if he doesn’t play, he needs to practice. He needs to skate. He needs to be engaged, because the Canadiens were likely going to use him in the playoffs, but will be reluctant to do so if he has been doing essentially nothing for a month. 

Bring Poehling up as well, perhaps — not with the plan of having him play immediately, but players on the cusp of being NHLers need to be playing hockey to be ready for the big moment that they are called to shine on the big stage. 

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.

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