Call Of The Wilde: Florida Panthers drop undermanned Montreal Canadiens 5-2

The first game of 2022 was the only game for the Montreal Canadiens until Jan. 12 in Boston, and that’s a good thing because Montreal can’t even ice a full lineup at this point.

The Canadiens were in Florida on New Year’s Day where they fell to the highly talented Panthers 5-2.

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It’s bizarre to say it, but it’s actually more enjoyable watching these overmatched kids try their hearts out. Not to suggest that the injured veterans can’t do better – they clearly can do better – however, veterans are going to just bide their time during games like these, during seasons like these, and that’s not exactly inspiring to watch.

It’s more enjoyable to watch Cam Hillis get the first NHL game of his career, to see how he fares.

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It’s more enjoyable to see Kale Clague get lots of minutes to see if he can translate this opportunity into a regular NHL post next season.

It’s more enjoyable to see Michael Pezzetta fight anyone who tries to intimidate him, showing it is also about the fight in the dog – not just the dog in the fight.

Jesse Ylonen is also getting his feet wet at the NHL level, and while it may seem like he is not doing much, he’s a player subtly beginning to get comfortable with games at this level of opposition.

Ryan Poehling looks better as well this year more than last year, and he may have a spot locked up next season finally to become an NHL regular.

Cole Caufield has not scored in 13 and everyone might be under the impression that he is not learning. However, if Caufield is getting a lot of minutes, he is learning. For example, his breakaway in the second period happened because he is learning well how to read the play. Caufield is still 20 years of age; time is on his side. Valuable lessons happen every single shift. It’s still preferred that Caufield dominate in the AHL in a normal world instead of struggle in the NHL, but these are not normal times in world history. The key is ice time and he’s getting it.

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At one point in the first period, it was Hillis with a beautiful dish to Pezzetta and he tried a between the legs move to beat Sergei Bobrovsky. That was a gorgeous moment for the two of them to be wearing a CH proudly. Imagine if that creative move led to a goal.

What about the leadership of David Savard these days? He came to camp overweight and it meant a slow start, but now does not resemble even slightly the player who began the season for Montreal. He’s a player instead who can find himself on a second or third pairing on a good team and contribute well.  Put Savard with match-ups that he can handle and he will not be a liability like he was in October. The Savard seen Jan. 1, 2022, does not look like a terrible signing as he did last October.

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Add Jonathan Drouin to the positives list – he scored in the first period. Drouin’s celebration after his 1-1 marker tells you without a doubt that he wants to contribute and he has not mailed in his effort this season. He’s still in it with pride. It’s difficult for veterans to remain engaged in this kind of season, and Drouin is showing that he is engaged. That should be noted.

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Nick Suzuki is taking on the best centres in hockey this season, and that’s valuable learning. He’s also learning how to play 25 minutes per game which may not be a positive, but when that dials back to 18 minutes, those games will feel positively refreshing. Suzuki scored his seventh goal of the season on a rebound with a wide-open net after a Ylonen shot for his first NHL point.

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Samuel Montembeault is also starting to relax at the NHL level with all of these contests. He faced 36 shots through two periods allowing only three, likely earning a spot somewhere in the organization next year.

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No way are these Canadiens getting criticized here. They started the contest with 11 forwards and five defenders, then lost Cedric Paquette and Pezzetta for a short time, and they still competed with courage against one of the best teams in the league who had a full lineup.

That was a solid effort. They can all hold their heads high.

READ MORE: NHL postpones 9 Canadian games due to COVID-19 attendance restrictions

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The big question everyone has these days is how can you even play these games? Where is the competitive fairness in all of this? The answer is that there is none.

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The Canadiens were without 16 players in this game due to COVID-19 protocols.

Alexander Romanov and Jake Allen were added to the list on Saturday morning. With the lower-body injury to Brendan Gallagher, the club iced a lineup with 11 forwards and five defencemen against the Florida Panthers. The Canadiens have 48 contracted players in the organization with 24 of them out due to injury or COVID. This is likely the highest number of contracted players unavailable for a game in NHL history.

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That’s why the betting line had the Panthers at -690 for the game. They had just hammered Tampa 9-3 in their last contest. They had a full line-up, and anyone could see that this was an AHL versus NHL game.

Still, they played. Why?

Firstly, the league does not worry much about the actual result of the game or the competitive integrity of it. What they worry about is money, and the Habs game over the holidays in Florida is one of the best draws of the season for a Panthers franchise that doesn’t have an over-abundance of fans.

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Secondly – and this one is not considered enough – if the Canadiens were screaming to the rooftops about the difficulty of icing a team and remaining competitive, the resulting embarrassment to the league would cause a postponement. However, the Canadiens are not crying foul with ferocity because they are not in a playoff race. They are in a top-draft-pick race and a weak lineup, in that manner, serves their purpose.

If the Canadiens were sixth in the east and icing an AHL lineup for three weeks that could potentially take them out of the playoffs, the uproar from everyone would be heard on the moon. Instead, mostly silence.

This is a perfect storm of COVID-19 cases, but it’s also a perfect storm of Montreal hockey fans and Montreal ownership not needing to care that much about the losses piling up.

Instead, the consensus complaint that is being dealt with from a Montreal point of view does show us how much all of this is about money. After the game versus Florida, the Canadiens are off until Jan. 12 when they play in Boston. The home dates for almost all of this month have already been postponed.

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The reason is the financial bloodbath that the Canadiens would face is much more important than the results of the games. And that’s the right call. It’s not fair that governments of one nation allow full capacity while another nation allows no one in the building. Canadian owners can not compete; nor should they be asked to.

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More games will be postponed than already have been in Canada until fans are allowed to return. COVID sure has taught us all that the real commodity isn’t people’s health in schools or on NHL ice surfaces – it’s all about keeping the economy going.

And that’s not pointing a finger at only the NHL. It’s the same all over the world.

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

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