Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens steal one against the Arizona Coyotes

The Montreal Canadiens are on a make-or-break road trip — their longest road trip of the season at seven games.

And it started Monday night with a 3-2 win in overtime over the Arizona Coyotes.

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While the wins are getting harder to come by these days, at least the positives individually remain for the Canadiens’ best players. Cole Caufield continues his sensational scoring ways.

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Early in the second period, Caufield took advantage of a loose puck, and from there, he was a pure goal scorer as usual. He was in the slot, but did not shoot immediately. He skated laterally with only one purpose in mind: make the goaltender track him across the goal, so he could shoot it back against the grain where the goalie was. That would be a difficult save to make and Karel Vejmelka was not even close.

It marked yet another perfectly executed shot for the 19th goal of the season in 32 games for the sophomore winger. The Canadiens haven’t had a 40-goal scorer this century, but Caufield is on pace for 49 goals this year.

Read more: Tampa Bay Lightning dominate the Montreal Canadiens (Dec. 17, 2022)

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 Juraj Slafkovsky was caught with his head down yet again. It’s a concern as the 18-year-old rookie doesn’t seem to be learning quickly how to avoid this issue. The positive is that as much as he is getting rocked with big hits, he seems to be surviving them without getting his head impacted.

In the latest episode, Shayne Gostisbehere saw Slafkovsky come out of a puck battle in the neutral ice with the puck, and as soon as Slafkovsky went to skate forward, he was rocked. He went down hard, but he got up quickly as well.

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This is what happens when a player is six feet four inches and has not had to be careful in his career because he has been so much bigger than the opposition. You can call it the Eric Lindros syndrome. Players bigger than everyone else do not have to learn how to keep their heads up until they play in the National Hockey League, where they don’t get away with this mistake.

While this is definitely sub-optimal, Slafkovsky is making it through these early months without incident to his brain. May it continue until he figures this out.

And figure it out he must, because there is no choice. Either he figures it out, or he’s not healthy enough to play hockey soon, because he won’t avoid concussions in the long run, getting rocked every three or four weeks.

READ MORE: Anaheim Ducks upset the Montreal Canadiens (Dec. 15, 2022)

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Call of the Wilde!

The game in Arizona felt like the rebuild has a tremendously long way to go. Ignore the close score because the Canadiens got caved in, and only Sam Montembeault prevented an embarrassing night.

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The supposed two top-six centres for Montreal were outclassed. Nick Suzuki’s line had a 30 per cent shot share, and Kirby Dach’s line did even worse with a 15 per cent shot share. It wasn’t as if the Canadiens were playing the Boston Bruins. Montreal was playing a terrible hockey team and were easily the second-best on the ice Monday night.

Only one player had a better than 50 per cent shot share in the first two periods and he was playing only his third NHL game and first for Montreal. Anthony Richard played well, but when a 25-year-old journeyman is the best player and the only one with a positive Corsi, that’s not a good thing. In fact, it’s an eye-opener.

The two top lines were so bad in the first two periods, that, once again, head coach Martin St. Louis was forced to switch them up. He’s trying his best to get Josh Anderson to finish a game on the top line, but it fails so tragically that the experiment can’t even make it through the game.

For the third period, it was Dach back with Suzuki and Caufield. At least this way, the Canadiens have one good line.

Dach got an assist on the overtime winner by Mike Hoffman — a win made possible only because of the outstanding goaltending of Montembeault who completely stole the night.

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The Montreal Canadiens have done an effective job so far this season of staying over the .500 mark.

For those fans who want a playoff push, all the wins have been exciting. For all those fans who want a high draft pick, this success has been frustrating, with too much, too soon.

In the immediate future, everyone will learn what the true path is for the club in the spring.

After an early season schedule against a lot of weak opposition, the strength of schedule for the rest of the season for Montreal is the most difficult in the entire NHL.

If Montreal is still over .500 in February, they may have more than experts believe. If not, the trading deadline will be quite exciting with veterans returning top draft picks.

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Here’s the terrific news though: the second hardest schedule in hockey is Florida’s. The Canadiens own the Panthers’ first-round draft pick. The Panthers may do some considerable losing, and that could lead to a top-10 pick for Montreal.

It will be interesting to see how the Panthers handle the deadline. They will be reluctant to weaken their club knowing it makes them look bad with Montreal having their first pick.

However, the Panthers have to keep strengthening their team, so they could trade their veterans for some other club’s first-round pick. They’re going to want to have a first-rounder at all costs. To surprisingly miss the playoffs, and then not have a first-round pick — either is an embarrassing moment.

Anthony Duclair, for example, could fetch a first at the deadline in early March. Duclair has not played this season with an Achilles injury. He started skating last week after surgery. He had 31 goals last year and is a free agent after the 2023-2024 season.

READ MORE: Montreal Canadiens fall to the Ottawa Senators (Dec. 14, 2022)

One final interesting note is the strength of the schedule.

The Canadiens are close to around the seventh spot for the draft. They would love it if some teams below them could play good hockey to improve the Canadiens’ positioning. That also increases the odds of the Canadiens winning the lottery.

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Chicago, Arizona and Vancouver all have very weak opposition overall and therefore opportunities to pass Montreal in the standings.

Imagine if the Canadiens won both of the lotteries. If both Florida and Montreal finished in the bottom 10 of the league, the Canadiens do have the possibility of drafting one and two. Admittedly, the odds of that are extremely long, but it is possible.

It’s a win-win. If the Canadiens win in this extremely difficult strength of schedule, then fans will rejoice over how quickly this young talent is developing. If they fold under the weight of it, then this 2023 draft could just be the best this century, and the Canadiens will be picking in the top 10 at least once.

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