What a beautiful sight it was to see a packed house in Montreal again. The curfew is lifted. Attendance restrictions are gone. The nation can hopefully get back to normal after a two year battle against COVID-19.
For now, 21,273 rejuvenated fans could enjoy the Canadiens playing their best hockey of the season. Though the Seattle Kraken ruined Saturday night’s party with a 4-3 win after a 14-shot shootout.
The Canadiens have struggled for many reasons this season. They have never had a number one defensive tandem.
Until Saturday night.
Joel Edmundson returned to action for the first time this year. He was paired with Jeff Petry. It was a partnership that was outstanding last year, when the Canadiens advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup final. This year, without his regular partner, Petry struggled mightily on many nights.
Together against Seattle, they looked as comfortable as last season. Edmundson is not flashy, but he is smart. He takes care of all of the assignments that allow Petry the freedom he likes up ice.
Earlier this year, any combination of Alexander Romanov, Ben Chiarot, David Savard, Brett Kulak and Petry was never a number one pairing. Whatever was tried did not work.
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Montreal was the stronger team in Saturday’s battle, but sometimes the puck doesn’t get into the net enough when a team carries the play.
The Canadiens got a number of strong performances by players who just couldn’t find the back of the net. Cole Caufield was flying, but could not convert. Artturi Lehkonen continued to play the best hockey of his career as he tries to convince this management team to not trade him. Ryan Poehling was skating well and going to the net hard. Jake Evans was strong centering his line.
Overtime was another revelation under new head coach, Martin St. Louis — so different than OT under Dominique Ducharme. The three players on the ice pursue the puck and try to take charge of the game. They are not passive. They are not waiting to lose. They are hungry to win.
The manpower choices from St. Louis are an indication of the hunger to win, as Caufield, Suzuki and Petry were first out and the most out in the extra five minutes.
The shootout saw the goalies dominate as Philipp Grubauer and Sam Montembeault stopped the first 13 shots they faced.
Again, there’s a lot to like from this Martin St. Louis club as they led in chances, but some nights the puck doesn’t bounce right to get a win in regulation time.
And that is more than fine with Seattle in 31st place and Montreal last — and the best odds to draft first in July.
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The special teams continue to struggle. Something has to be done about that before next season. Some form of personnel change may be needed behind the bench to rejuvenate the special teams.
The stats on the night showed the power play was 0-6. Shorthanded the club allowed one goal in three Seattle power plays. These numbers should not be this significantly bad game after game.
St. Louis has shown he has terrific 5-on-5 ideas, but special teams have not changed at all, and they must eventually, if the club is going to compete for wins instead of higher draft choices.
An obvious show that things are different in Montreal came with the announcement that the February Molson Cup winner for the month was Cole Caufield. The rookie who was languishing on the fourth line is suddenly nearly the best player on the team.
Caufield had the most three star selections for the month ahead of teammates Josh Anderson and Samuel Montembeault, who shared the award in January.
In nine games in February, the 21 year-old had six goals and four assists. Caufield also was a plus-five proving that you can put up a good plus number simply by playing in the offensive end of the rink.
Caufield is also benefiting from being on the top line with Nick Suzuki. Since they formed a trio with Anderson, the three collectively have 15 goals in nine games. Over the course of the season that would give them one of the best goal-per-game averages in the entire league.
The sample size needs to get bigger for validation, but so far, Caufield looks like this Molson Cup winning segment was the first of many to come.