Stop one of the four-game road trip for the Montreal Canadiens was a theft in Calgary as Jake Allen made 45 saves in a 2-1 win. Stop two was even more difficult for the goalie as the Canadiens faced powerhouse shooters like Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl.
The Oilers used their exceptional power play to win 5-3.
Connor McDavid embarrasses defenders. It’s what he does. He embarrasses defencemen like the Roadrunner embarrasses Wile E. Coyote. So in the first period, when McDavid had a full head of steam and made one of his patented lateral moves, it looked like Kaiden Guhle was going to be a victim.
What happened instead is one for the history books for the rookie. Guhle was able to square up and meet McDavid right in the chest and stop him cold. What a vote of confidence that must have been for Guhle. No one stops McDavid like that.
There are times when McDavid is taken wide and his shot comes from a bad angle on a rare good defensive one-on-one play, but to actually square him up and stop him from skating forward completely, that’s a special moment in hockey circles.
Guhle has the goods. It was a big game for him, returning to where he won the Western Hockey League championship for the Edmonton Oil Kings and being the MVP of the playoffs. He wanted to impress at Rogers Place and he certainly did.
When you see a moment like that, a game like that, and, so far, a season like that, you know Guhle is a first pair defender in the NHL in waiting. Just a little bit more seasoning in positioning and puck battles and the entire package is there for Guhle. One of the pieces needed to find NHL success has been found.
Some nights Guhle plays 25 minutes against the best the NHL has to offer. When that’s the first 20 games of your career and you stop McDavid in his tracks, you are on your way to greatness.
The Stay-At-Home defenceman is about to become obsolete in the NHL. In fact, the ones that remain are basically just being grandfathered in at this point. If a defender can’t join the rush on offence and supply an opportunity to score as well as stop goals, the usefulness of this player is just about finished.
Take the freedom that the Canadiens have as defenders in the NHL. Mike Matheson has finally returned to the line-up after injury, and right away he adds an offensive element to the blue line that is absolutely vital for success. He drew a penalty on a rush that gave the Canadiens a power play which they scored on to tie the game at three.
All of the new generation of great defencemen all add an offensive element to their games. The new defenders on the Canadiens add skating and puck skills to their ability to stop forwards. A new day has dawned where Matheson, Guhle, Arber Xhekaj, Jordan Harris, and Jonathan Kovacevic playing a 200-foot game makes the Canadiens a much more dangerous club to play against.
Head Coach Martin St. Louis is all about this new dynamic. He’s a coach for his time; a coach for these new times in the NHL. The game is changing and a coach with his head in the sand won’t cut it. Changes are afoot and St. Louis is leading the charge. He wants the minds of his players to be free. He wants them to take every spot of ice that they can fill with creativity.
His line-up choices in the moment also are about developing his players for the future. The stars of tomorrow can’t be the stars of tomorrow from the bench. On a 5-on-3 power play with the Canadiens down 3-2, the head coach put out two players with not a half-season between them. Arber Xhekaj scored and Juraj Slafkovsky got an assist. In the old days, they would have been watching; not creating.
It is so easy to be excited about this club with all of these players with so much of their best selves in front of them in the next five years. Four rookies on the blue line and all the best players up front on the top line each scoring around a point-per-game.
There’s a core of players who are already middle of the pack in the NHL, winning too many games for some people’s liking. Those players are about to be joined by some of the best prospects this club has had in ages.
The only issue is all this improvement is coming a little too soon to get one more piece in the draft that could be a franchise player. That’s a good problem for General Manager Kent Hughes to already have in only his second season.
The Oilers have a power play operating at 28 per cent this season. McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins, Evan Bouchard and Darnell Nurse are hard enough to stop 5-on-5, but when the Oilers get a 5-on-3 — that’s a recipe for disaster.
How about three different 5-on-3 power plays? In one period? That doesn’t happen most games; never mind three times in one period. The result was three power play goals in the second for the Oilers to take over.
It’s too bad that it happened from a hockey point of view, because when the Canadiens were able to stay out of the penalty box, they held the Oilers to only four shots in the first period. Montreal 5-on-5 was the better team. They just didn’t play enough of the game at even strength.
The level of Montreal Canadiens prospects has elevated so much in the last two years that yesterday’s hopefuls barely get mentioned today.
At one point, Jesse Ylonen was the best bet to break into the NHL line-up, but these days, he’s barely given a chance. He’s playing good hockey still, but there are simply too many that have leaped above him.
Owen Beck, Sean Farrell, Joshua Roy, Riley Kidney, Vinzenz Rohrer are all scoring machines and suddenly better prospects are bountiful.
On defence, the same story as Mattias Norlinder can barely get in the conversation anymore because there are so many who have leapfrogged him.
Recently, the Lane Hutson story keeps growing into something resembling historic.
Hutson has 17 points in 14 games for Boston University. That’s vying for the best freshman season in college history for a defender.
That mark is held by Brian Leetch, who had 47 points in 37 games for a points-per-game of 1.27. That was also in an era of hockey where the average game had nine goals; not six. Hutson is at 1.21 points-per-game.
What Hutson is accomplishing is sensational. He’s actually higher in points-per-game than even Luke Hughes, who is the best blue line prospect in hockey.
On Friday night, Hutson had three assists against New Hampshire. It felt like he could have had a point every shift.
He’s a remarkable player. It will be required viewing when the World Junior Championships start Boxing Day to see how Hutson performs in a best-on-best tournament. He’s just out of the NHL draft in a tourney that favours 20-year-olds.
Hutson shone in the U18s last year as he was arguably the best defenceman in the event, though the USA lost in the final to Sweden.
The U20s will be required viewing for Canadiens fans as it’s possible that there could be 11 Habs prospects there, though the number will likely finish at around seven. That’s a remarkable total.