Game 27 found the Montreal Canadiens with only six wins.
Since the last loss, the Canadiens announced that they will be without Joel Edmundson and Tyler Toffoli for an extended period of time due to injury. There aren’t that many players left from the Canadiens team that played the Tampa Bay Lightning in the Stanley Cup Final only five months ago.
The Lightning are pretty much intact, and they showed their superiority with a 3-2 win at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night, though Montreal gave it a tremendous effort.
It’s difficult to find any positives this season, but one is Alexander Romanov. He is figuring it out at the NHL level. It’s only his second NHL season, and that’s easy to forget. It takes time to be a good blue liner in the NHL. Some experts feel that while a forward had better be putting up numbers at 23, a defender can still be learning at 26 to 28.
Imagine, then, how much the Canadiens appreciate the work of Romanov, who is only 21 and already doing so many things well. Somehow, even though the Habs have the second worst goal differential in the entire league, Romanov is only minus five on the season.
Romanov lays out massive hits, and his timing in stepping up on the blue line to meet the attacker is getting better and better. It’s also easy to appreciate that Romanov is extremely courageous when blocking shots.
There are times that the distance from the player shooting the puck to Romanov seems great, which means the chance for injury is significant, but Romanov goes to the ice and puts his entire body on the line every time. This is especially noteworthy when the season is already over from a playoffs point-of-view.
It’s great to see the coaching staff taking note of Romanov’s improved play. In his last game, Romanov logged 24 minutes and 24 seconds. That’s ice time often reserved for only a first pair defender. Romanov is already a foundation piece for when the Canadiens are rebuilt down the road.
The Canadiens have spent a lot of hockey in their own zone this season, so it was interesting to see the club handle one of the best in the league fairly well. Perhaps the reason is stay-at-home defenders end up staying at home a lot, and puck movers tend to move the puck.
If you look at the makeup of the defenders in this game, Brett Kulak, Chris Wideman, Kale Clague and Alexander Romanov could all be called puck movers. Ben Chiarot moves the puck alright as well on a good night. Only David Savard would you call more defensive, and he had his best game of the season playing his former team.
Montreal didn’t spend 50-second shifts at a time in its own zone in this one. Tampa had only 11 shots at the halfway point in the contest. It was an enjoyable game as a spectator to see the club push the puck up ice quickly. Puck-moving defenders succeeding brought the speed and talent of the wingers back into the contest.
Wingers like Mike Hoffman scored and Jonathan Drouin had a terrific game. His one assist was a thing of beauty, feeding to trailer Savard who took the shot that Nick Suzuki finished on the rebound.
Suzuki seemed to enjoy the quick breakouts as well as he counted the goal and added an assist. Suzuki now has 100 points already as an NHLer. Suzuki has been overmatched the odd night trying to be the first-line centre on a bad hockey team, but his personal development is excellent.
He’s going to be a point-per-game player in the league when he finds himself on a talented club.
While the Canadiens did lose allowing a tying goal with the Tampa net empty, and the winner with only 37 seconds remaining, this was a strong effort by an undermanned Canadiens team. It would be easy to slam them here for giving away the win in the dying seconds, but that’s been done enough. Sure, they did lose, but this was a night when the club went toe-to-toe with one of the best for 57 minutes.
It’s heartbreaking for the players who worked so hard only to have the final result go so poorly. There will be other nights to add to the negativity by hammering the players for not getting a result. This night, instead, let’s fill the glass to half and credit them for an outstanding effort, despite the eventual result.
There is so much hope for the blue line of tomorrow for the Canadiens, but so far, there are more questions than answers.
Mattias Norlinder has a chance to be a power play specialist one day, but he was given so little opportunity in Montreal that GM Jeff Gorton had to ship him to Laval on Tuesday.
If Dominique Ducharme can’t put a kid on the ice, get the kid away from Dom. Sometimes it’s the only way for a GM to dictate player usage, and it could be a successful way for Norlinder. If Norlinder can get 20 minutes per game in the American Hockey League playing in all situations, including the power play, and getting important shifts late in the contest, it could really help his development.
Another defender that Montreal wants in their better-balanced blue line for the future is Jordan Harris. His coach called him the best defender not in the NHL today. Owen Power and Jake Sanderson are clearly ahead of Harris in that comparison, but the comment does indicate that Harris will be a good one.
Again though, the question here is if Harris will come to play in Montreal. The Canadiens’ rights to Harris end this summer, and it is feared that he will not want to play here.
However, it could just be that Harris wanted to finish his education at Northeastern. It has also been suggested that he didn’t think he could find a spot on the Habs’ blue line successfully. That worry seems to be in the past now, as the Canadiens are likely to unload some veteran talent before the trading deadline, opening a spot for Harris if he wants it.
Harris said initially that he would come to play in Montreal and that he was excited for the opportunity, so the word from people who know Harris well say that he is a man of ethics and if he said that he would come to the Canadiens, then his word is good.
Enter the next blueliner in the conversation. Kaiden Guhle is off to a flying start and has been recently traded from Prince Albert to Edmonton in the Western Hockey League.
The Oil Kings are loading up for a playoff run and Guhle will be a big part of that. Guhle has 17 points in 19 games this season. Guhle will also be an important member of Team Canada at the World Juniors. Guhle looks like a lock of a pick by Trevor Timmins.
Another player for Northeastern is Jayden Struble. He hasn’t progressed this year as was hoped and has only four points on the season for the Huskies. Points don’t always tell the story, though. Struble could be a physical force as an NHLer. He is imposing and powerful, yet has a fluid skating stride. It’s a combination that you don’t see often.
That’s four young defenders who appear to have a bright future. There’s one more, as well, but Logan Mailloux is a complete wild card at this point. He is not even allowed to play hockey in the Ontario Hockey League because of his conviction in Europe of a sex crime. Executive Vice-President of Hockey Operations Jeff Gorton will have to make a decision on what he wants to do with Mailloux.
Montreal’s blue line at the moment simply does not have enough puck-movers, but that will change in the coming years. There is a good chance that three of these five will land as NHL players.
How many eventually make their way to the NHL making a difference will go a long way in deciding how successful this Montreal rebuild is overall.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.