The Montreal Canadiens have had a strong start to the season with three wins in their first five starts, including perfection at home. However, game six promised to be the most challenging, facing the Dallas Stars who earned points in their first four games.
Dallas has a stronger forecheck than anyone Montreal has faced, and it caused problems as the Stars won 5-2.
The Canadiens have taken advantage of some rather suspect goaltending in their three home victories. In game four, they ran into perhaps the best goaltender in hockey right now, Jake Oettinger. He entered the contest with a .963 save percentage. Montreal brought it lower, but not low enough.
The former first-round pick of 2017 is at the top of his game. The Canadiens had their chances and played another solid game, but Oettinger was the better of the two goalies on the night and that made a difference.
The skater that stood out for Montreal was Arber Xhekaj, who continues to impress beyond anyone’s expectations. He wasn’t supposed to make the team. He wasn’t supposed to destroy one of the heavyweights in the league, Zach Kassian, in a fight. He isn’t supposed to lead a rush up ice to end up in the Habs’ first goal.
Xhekaj started it with a blocked shot. He then fed it up ice and continued on the rush. He got the puck back and levelled a gorgeous soft pass forward beyond a defender to lead to a quality shot. Mike Hoffman scored on the rebound.
In the second period, it’s more Xhekaj, as he has become a fan favourite already. The Bell Centre was standing as they announced the first goal in of Xhekaj’s NHL career. It was well earned. He was at the point. He dipsy-doodled back and forth to change the angle, so the checker couldn’t block the shot. It also changed the angle of the trajectory, and found the top corner against a sightless Oettinger.
Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson are going to come back soon to the line-up after healing their injuries. How are you going to remove Xhekaj from the line-up? Who are you going to take out of this line-up? It can’t be Jordan Harris or Kaiden Guhle because they actually lead the team in ice time.
Everyone presumed it would be Xhekaj, but this season is about development. It’s about allowing the players with the most promise to keep showing it. Leaving Chris Wideman in to remove Xhekaj goes against that grain. It will be interesting to watch in the next month, but for a coaching staff these are hard decisions that are win-win.
Brendan Gallagher has no luck these days, and really in his career. He’s had more screws put in him than the Tin Man in the Wizard of Oz. Finally, this year, Gallagher felt healthy again. He was ready to rejuvenate his career. He was ready to play more complex hockey under the tutelage of Martin St. Louis who didn’t want him to just charge the net, but add some complexity to his game.
It was going well for Gallagher. He looked great to start the season. He was skating faster than we have seen in a while. However, he just can’t catch a break. Of all the rotten luck to be charging the net, and he strides on to an errant stick. Near the boards, he fell to the ice, and slammed in hard.
Gallagher hobbled to the bench. He went to the dressing room. It didn’t look like he would come back. He did for two shifts, but then left again. It looked like a left knee injury.
He then tried it one more time in the third period. It isn’t that this is a serious injury. It looks like, as always, Gallagher will gut this out and play through it.
But it would be great if he could just get better luck than skating onto a stick to crash into the boards. Just one season of health feels like it would be a miracle.
The level of talent of the Canadiens prospects is higher than it has been this century. It was only two months ago that players like Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Arber Xhekaj , and Juraj Slafkovsky were known as prospects trying to make their way into the NHL. Now, they are all in the show and excelling.
There’s more for the Canadiens to feel excited about. In college, Lane Hutson is averaging better than a point-per-game as a defenceman in his freshman season at Boston University. Hutson is showing the same silky smooth skills that he did at the U18 world championships when he was arguably the tournament’s best defender. Hutson has also grown two inches, which makes the draft pick look even better than when they took him this summer.
There are another two players that are surprising in the Ontario Hockey League. After outstanding camps, Filip Mesar and Owen Beck have moved to the junior leagues and their early returns are spectacular.
Mesar didn’t think the juniors was the right choice for him considering he played effectively in the senior leagues in Europe last season. However, General Manager Kent Hughes said that he wanted him Mesar to get 80 points in juniors, rather than 40 in the American Hockey League in Laval. The concept here for Hughes is that he wants his talented forward to have the puck a lot and play in a league where he gets to exercise his offensive skill set.
In his first game, did he ever. Masar dominated with four points on a goal and three assists for Kitchener. Usually, you can expect a break-in period for a player to adapt. Looks like Masar needed about ten minutes. The goal that he scored was end-to-end where it didn’t appear anyone had any idea how to stop the late first round draft pick. In his second game, he scored two more goals including the overtime winner on a breakaway deke that no NHL goalie stops. The edge work was incredible as he finished on the forehand.
Owen Beck had an outstanding camp in Montreal. He is a centre who looks very intelligent in his reads at a very young age. Beck returned to Mississauga to play for the Steelheads, and he is rolling. In a contest on Friday night, Beck tied a franchise record with a six point game. He had a goal and five assists. On Saturday night, Beck scored another two goals and added an assist for nine points in two games.
How do talented player like Jesse Ylonen and Justin Barron ever break through to find a spot in this line-up?
Sean Farrell also continues to put up the points in his sophomore season for Harvard. Logan Mailloux is back to good health recently, and he also scored his first goal of the season for London on Saturday night.
The depth chart already looks so strong. And the Canadiens will have two, if not three, first round draft choices this summer as well. The kids are alright. In fact, they’re excellent. The future looks bright.