Cole Caufield made his NHL debut on Monday night in the biggest game of the season for the Montreal Canadiens.
Oddsmakers had Montreal’s chances at the playoffs at 83 per cent if they won against the Flames in Calgary, but only at 57 per cent if they lost. Now that’s a big game, and Montreal came through with a 2-1 win.
Tyler Toffoli again has to be mentioned, because you win with goals and Toffoli has scored so many important ones this year that there is no way the Canadiens are even close to a playoff spot without him.
Toffoli had another game-winner on Monday night for 25 goals on the season. It does not look like he is doing a lot out there until you look at it is he who is, raising his arms in the air again and celebrating. Toffoli got the 2-1 goal, and then it was up to Jake Allen again.
You could also say where would they be without their back-up keeper as well. Allen had a .955 save percentage on the night, allowing only one goal. He played six games against the Flames this season and struggled with a two and four record. You would look at that and think he must have been awful. Allen was .938 against Calgary this season. A save percentage of .938 usually gets you a five and one record in six games. They just do not support him with goals a lot this season. His season total is .914. Carey Price is .901. Marc Bergevin sure picked the right season to have finally brought in his best backup goalie in his tenure as general manager.
Meanwhile, all eyes were on Cole Caufield in his NHL debut. He had a strong game for his first attempt, in a contest that certainly wasn’t designed to show off his skillset. Early in the contest, Caufield had a very difficult play to execute as the wraparound came along his side and he just angled his skate perfectly to make a pass to the supporting centre. A small play, but a play perfectly done.
Caufield also had two great scoring chances in the first period. In fact, the best chance was off the rush as Caufield was on the right side and he almost found the top corner. Later in the first, Caufield did one of his patented bad angle shots. At Wisconsin, he loved to bank these from bad angles off the back side of a shoulder, or the back side of a helmet, and he almost pulled it off. Surely, he will many times. He can put shots exactly where he wants to.
Caufield also held his own defensively. He was not ever the cause of trouble. He didn’t turn over the puck. He respected the blue line as one must at the NHL level or they don’t stay at the NHL level. It was certainly unspectacular, but this was an extremely unspectacular game. There really was no one on either side that had a chance to seriously shine on offence.
Jake Evans hasn’t played enough this season for what he has been bringing. It’s a shame, because Evans is a great energy player. He gives defenders fits on the forecheck. He angles them off well. He reads the play well. Evans played his best hockey of the season when Eric Staal was acquired and waiting to finish his quarantine. Still, Evans got benched.
We just didn’t see a meritocracy then, which has to be a slow erosion in the dressing room when a player looks at the scoresheet and sees that his ice time did not equal the level of his play. Evans was the best forward on the night for Montreal.
The scores in these three Flames-Canadiens games may have changed some over the course of the weekend, but the key component was the same not just these three games, but the entire season between the two clubs. The Flames have a fierce forecheck, and the Canadiens don’t have an answer for it.
Montreal may win the puck in a battle almost as much as Calgary, but after the battle for the puck is won, the Canadiens defenceman just stands there without the ability to either quickly pass it up, or skate away from that battle quickly.
A won puck battle is only a temporary victory, if the forechecker remains standing right beside you still to win round two.
Shea Weber may be able to cross check you hard and take the puck away, but that’s only part one of the process. Ben Chiarot is a big boy and he can battle, but after he has temporarily taken that valuable disc, the next part is the downfall.
This is why Dominique Ducharme speaks so much about puck support in the defensive zone. He needs all of the forwards to also be close by so those defenders can win it and then only have a four foot pass to make.
That’s fine sometimes, but how do you back off the Calgary blue liners holding the point with all of your Montreal players tight in support below the dots? How do you make a Flames defender respect a streaking Cole Caufield trying to split the defenders when Caufield is standing close to Joel Edmundson right beside Jake Allen?
The longer the game goes, the more the Flames pinch harder and harder — because they can, and because they’re never punished for it.
And on and on and on it goes. The same pattern without any break every single game.
So how do the Canadiens break this pattern to be a better hockey team in the long run? Sadly, it is that they need to be more able to move the puck. They need to change the players. They need defenders that can do part two in the equation of moving it up to forwards and having explosive skating strides to lose the would-be checkers.
It’s not enough to do just part one, or part one just keeps repeating. You need part two… the puck-moving defender.
It will be interesting to see how next season shakes out at the centre position. It has to be assumed firstly that Eric Staal won’t be returning. He has not been a revelation, and the years never count backward so next year will be even more difficult for him to keep up. Without Staal in the mix, and Philip Danault possibly not signed, it’s quite up in the air for 2021-2022.
Two centres are guaranteed. Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki will continue their strong trajectory toward maturing at the age of 25. For those two, it is simply wondering how high they can push the ceiling on their development. Kotkaniemi and Suzuki both need to push their level to 60 points next season for the club to have a stronger measure of success than this year. Asking the two to come through with seasons that they were good enough for them to be able to control the middle of the sheet this year was asking too much.
If Danault is not signed, the club does have enough in the middle to survive the loss of him, though it is definitely not a recommended course of action. He has centred one of the league’s best lines for the last three seasons. He matches up extremely well against the game’s best, and even if he is limited offensively, his prowess on defence is needed.
The opening is there for Jake Evans and Ryan Poehling to be the third and fourth line centres on the club, if Danault can not be inked. Evans has had a strong campaign, though not often favoured by the organization. In their ill fated attempt to improve at centre, the addition of Staal actually weakened the club which did not seem possible, but it has.
If Danault does come back, then Evans could be a fourth line winger for Poehling. It has to be considered that this is the last season for Poehling in the minor leagues. He is a dominant player now at the American Hockey League level. He is getting better by the game at this point.
The last five games Poehling has eight points. The last 10 games he has 12 points. He is almost a point-per-game player with 25 points in 28 games this season. It is a shame that the campaign is so short because a full season would have benefitted Poehling, but Covid-19 has ruined a lot of plans for everyone.
Even if Danault is signed, Poehling has a centre spot waiting for him next season. He has always been good on both sides of the puck. Evans with his energy would also be a good first forward on the forecheck, so the wing is a natural location for his game as well as centre. Whatever the organization views as the best construction, there is a spot for both of them next season on the Canadiens.
They’ll be a better club to give the pair a bit of room to grow.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.