The Montreal Canadiens are still looking for that elusive mathematical combination that assures a playoff spot. They missed two chances to get closer this week with losses to Ottawa and Toronto. They had a second chance against the Maple Leafs on Saturday night in Toronto, but the Leafs were better again, defeating Montreal 3-2.
It was the third straight loss for the Canadiens, so that means there isn’t cause for much celebration in this section. However, there are a couple of players who have played some of their best hockey this season in the last two weeks.
Nick Suzuki is turning into a number one centre, perhaps. He is 21-years-old and this has to be said, because when people hear a mention that a player could be a number one centre, they think only of what he is now. Now, he is not a number one centre, but he has four more years to develop. Players continue to improve, get more comfortable and more intelligent until at least 25 and sometimes beyond. The peak of a forward sometimes happens at 27 or 28, and defencemen peak even later than forwards.
That’s the precursor to say that Suzuki’s point totals this season by no stretch make him a number one, but the potential is there. During the last eight-game run, Suzuki has 13 points. He scored again in this contest. He also was trying extremely confident plays and almost executing them in this one. Down the line, he makes those plays. He completes those attempts and that makes him a number one. If this were a full season, Suzuki would finish with 58 points. Not quite there for a first line centre, but only 15 to 20 points of improvement away. In four years, it’s doable.
The other player who is finding a higher level is Ben Chiarot. He has played his best hockey of the season since the injury of Shea Weber, and that is not to insult either player, especially the captain. Sometimes it’s just about the combination, and in this case, a stay-at-home defenceman with a stay-at-home defenceman makes for a stuck-at-home pairing.
Chiarot and Weber should not be reunited when the captain is healthy again. They are better combined with more of a puck-mover like Brett Kulak, who continues to play strong hockey. If Weber’s minutes are managed so he can bring higher energy, it would be good for the club overall. That needs to happen, but it surely won’t. It would be a stunning reversal from the coaching staff.
It’s been the decision here to not be too negative to a group that has been forced to play 22 games in 37 nights. This is an unheard of schedule in hockey, where so much is asked physically of each player. Against every team that the Canadiens have played since their COVID-19 induced break, they have been the more fatigued team. They have never been more rested than their opposition. As a result, the Call Of The Wilde has not been the place to go, if you wanted strong criticism. There will be plenty of time for that when the Canadiens face a club equally as tired.
There will be a bit of time to lament Jake Allen — he could have helped the cause some more, but Allen has had a good season. He has been the better of the team’s two goalies and has shouldered basically the entire load since Carey Price went down with a long-to-heal concussion. If they get to the playoffs, Allen will be a huge reason it got done.
Sometimes though, you also face a team with more talent. Saturday was a good night to assess things on those terms. The Canadiens were giving it their all. They had good energy for this one. They even got out to a good lead. Talent then took over. Sometimes talent doesn’t even do that much to cancel out a ton of hard work. Toronto seemed to score on their only chances in the second period to take the lead 3-2. It didn’t look that hard for them. That’s what talent can do.
As a result, the Canadiens are still looking for those elusive final points to earn a playoff spot. The games are dwindling too, with only Edmonton to go on Monday and Wednesday. The Canadiens do not want to rely on the final four games from Calgary and Vancouver playing each other, just in case one of the two teams goes on a run.
For now, calm is the measured response. There’ll be time for frantic later, should the need arise.
It’s been noted here many times that one downside of playing 22 games in 37 nights is that all that hockey is going to lead to fatigue. Fatigue leads to losses against rested opponents.
You also are likely to suffer injury from fatigue. It’s not just the amount of play, but a body’s inability to keep functioning in the same manner. Muscles tire, and when they do, they pop, they sprain, they strain, they suffer.
So the Canadiens’ medical clinic is full as the regular season closes. The end of the season can’t come soon enough.
The Canadiens need a break before the playoffs start to rest and get healthy again. The longer it is after the season ends before the playoffs begin, the better. If it’s eight days, that’s great.
No one knows what the schedule will look like. If Calgary and Vancouver are already eliminated setting up known North Division match-ups, the playoffs could start right away.
That wouldn’t help Shea Weber, Carey Price, Philip Danault, Paul Byron, and Brendan Gallagher. They are the players that we do know that could use some more recovery time. How many more players are there that we don’t know?
Bring on the playoffs. If the Canadiens get there, they could surprise, especially with a full and rested team.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.