Five straight losses to start the season for the Montreal Canadiens. Never in the entire history of the league has a team that was in the finals the year before started the next season with six straight losses. Montreal wanted no part of that record. So job one was to score first. Montreal has been in front this season only two minutes and 50 seconds. However, the Red Wings scored first, but from there, Montreal poured it on to win 6-1.
Finally, a chance to pick out some strong individual performances in this section. It’s been a grind for five games finding anything of high quality, but on Saturday night, they got some mojo back.
It helps when you have a shooter in the line-up given an opportunity to shoot. Mike Hoffman has a wicked shot, and he’s used it his entire career effectively. Hoffman has six seasons with more than 20 goals topping out at 36, so he can put the puck in the net, and it is expected that he will do that here. He certainly showed the skill in the first period with a rocket, and on the power play no less. With the tally, the Canadiens actually moved into the lead and scored two in a game for the first time this season.
The other top performer was Jonathan Drouin who has been the best forward on the team in the club’s six games. On a team struggling for goals with only four in the first five games, it’s a bit of a miracle what Drouin is doing here. With Drouin’s gorgeous pass to Ben Chiarot, he had four points on the season, then early in the second period, he was also in on Christian Dvorak’s first goal for Montreal. It’s not a big number, but when goals have been so hard to come by, Drouin’s five points in six games is a feel-good moment considering last year’s mental health break from the game. Drouin is back and he seems like he is ready to play some of the best hockey of his career this season. Let’s hope this continues.
The fun continued in the second period as the sudden explosion of goals continued. Mathieu Perreault’s shot ripped to the top corner to make it 4-1 Montreal, then two minutes later, it was Cole Caufield to Tyler Toffoli to Perreault and he had his second goal. Suddenly, the once sullen fans were singing ‘Ole, Ole, Ole.’ Four goals in five games, then five goals in two periods for Montreal. You try to figure out hockey. I dare you.
Perreault was brought together with Caufield and Toffoli as a line that looks on paper like it’s supposed to be the third line on the team, but they were the best one in this contest analytically by a big margin. Perreault seems to read his wingers’ style very well, and they showed some good early chemistry. Perreault completed his hat trick in the third period, and no one had him down as the first Habs’ three-goal game of the season. It was 6-1 when Perreault’s name was being sung by the faithful who were in full voice enjoying the night immensely.
Sami Niku has been in and out of the line-up for the Winnipeg Jets for four seasons. This year, GM Marc Bergevin took a flyer on him hoping he could find another level this season. Niku is only 25 years of age and, for a defenceman, that is still young compared to a forward. He could find a better game Bergevin believes. In his first one of the Habs, Niku certainly did. Niku had two assists, and his analytics were outstanding as he and Brett Kulak had a goals expected of 85 per cent for the contest.
There were many others who shone in this one upfront and on the back end.
Josh Anderson must have had three amazing looks and he did not even get a shot on net, but when you get looks that good, you’ll figure it out. Brett Kulak simply plays good hockey most nights without any fanfare at all. Nick Suzuki seemed to be gaining in confidence after a rough start as he made a couple of dangles that were beautiful. Jake Evans had a good jump now that he has found a role that suits him more and that is the fourth line centre, so his line match-ups are more suited to what he can handle. All of the defensive pairings were better with each having a puck mover and a stay-at-home style player. Ben Chiarot and David Savard not together might be the best move of the season so far by the head coach. You can not have two stay-at-home defencemen together or you simply stay at home too much.
Montreal’s next game is in Seattle on Tuesday night. Montreal must build on this now. They can’t backslide against the expansion team. They need to get back to respectable in the next two weeks, or it will be extremely difficult to make a season of this.
There were five games to fill this section fully, so just one to note here considering how well the club played. Jeff Petry seems reluctant to pass to Cole Caufield on the power play. He looks to his left where Caufield is positioned perfectly to wire his right-handed shot, but Petry refused to pass to the rookie. There are times that Petry looks left at Caufield who is alone, then chooses the right side where the opposition has three players waiting to defend. It’s bizarre why Petry doesn’t pass to Caufield who is a sniper in that spot for a reason — to take nice soft passes and wire them.
Ticket sales have been sluggish all over Canada this season as we grapple with the safety of a new world living with a pandemic. Many people do not feel safe yet overall to be in crowds. There has been low attendance. For example, there were fewer than 9,000 to see that exciting young club in Ottawa. But Montreal has also struggled which is, of course, unusual. The Canadiens have racked up season after season of 21,273, but this year, not so. Only 16,095 attended the Canadiens game Tuesday night against San Jose.
While Geoff Molson and his organization wait for those heady days when everyone feels safe, they have shown their support for the community beautifully this week. On Thursday night and also on Saturday night, Molson donated 2,000 tickets to health care workers in the province who have done their absolute best to keep all of us safe through these difficult times.
The head of Sante Quebec, Christian Dubé, tweeted out his message of support to the Canadiens earlier this evening. Everyone is appreciative of the courageous effort. Hopefully, the worst of the pandemic is behind us and maybe in the not too distant future, we can all feel safe again and fill the Bell Centre on a nightly basis.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.