Friday night was stop three of a seven-game road trip for the Montreal Canadiens in Dallas.
Montreal did well in the first two games, taking three out of a possible four points, but in this one it was the Stars who came back for a 4-2 win.
The Dallas Stars are one of the best teams in the NHL this season. On the last night before the Christmas break, the American Airlines Arena in Dallas was packed. The fans were ready for a fun night of celebrations. The Stars were confident that they would have no issue with the Canadiens on this big night.
However, as has been a common script this season, no one told the Canadiens they weren’t supposed to be able to compete against such a strong team.
If you haven’t noticed by now, the Canadiens are not doormats in this league. So many keep waiting for a collapse that nets them Connor Bedard or Adam Fantilli in the entry draft. It isn’t going to happen. This Canadiens team is too good.
Why is this club surprising so much this season?
The answer is the four rookie defenders who are leading the way. This was supposed to be a year of Joel Edmundson, Mike Matheson, David Savard and then a lot of hope.
What happened instead is the three veterans have all been injured while the rookies are becoming strong NHLers.
Kaiden Guhle was the only sure-fire lock to make the club before the season began, but with what he is achieving so far, it is obvious Guhle has top pair potential. He is a massive find for the future.
Beyond Guhle, though, are three more defenders who don’t look like rookies at all. One wonders what exactly is their ceiling? It may just be much higher than anyone imagined. When a defender figures it out this quickly, there’s a good chance they just keep going up the ladder to the top.
Arber Xhekaj has gone from undrafted to one of the best in the Ontario Hockey League last season, to a solid and stable NHLer. Jordan Harris is one of those rearguards that is barely noticed which means he’s never doing anything wrong. Jonathan Kovacevic was a waiver wire pick-up who also simply plays stable hockey.
Last year, when the Canadiens were the worst team in the league, they didn’t have any of these four players who are the best four on the Montreal blue line this year. When someone looks for the answer to why the Canadiens are so surprisingly good this year, the answer is four rookie blue-liners facing some of the best forwards in the world for the first time and succeeding tremendously.
This one wasn’t about what Montreal was able to create offensively but how well they handled one of the highest scoring teams in the league.
However, goals are required, as well, and oddly it was the fourth line that got it done. Jake Evans got his first goal of the season finally. Michael Pezzetta ripped a shot to the top corner for a two-goal lead.
It’s becoming a concern how poorly Nick Suzuki is playing without Kirby Dach. Head coach Martin St. Louis has been trying to get two lines working because this season he’s had a one-line hockey team. However, as soon as he separates Dach from Suzuki, Suzuki falls apart.
Same story in this one. After two periods, Suzuki had a three-per cent shot share. You would think that was a typo, it is so impossibly bad, but Suzuki was dominated. Adding to the puzzling story is that Dach was the top player on the ice for Montreal with a standout 80-per cent shot share after two periods.
This closed up in the third, with the final totals 73 per cent shot share for Dach and 13 per cent shot share for Suzuki.
But this does not look good on Suzuki because if he is a number one centre, then he needs to be good even without Dach. The hope is when this settles that the Canadiens have two top-six centres when they find the correct wingers, but all that we know so far is that Dach has to go to Suzuki’s wing for Suzuki to look top-six.
This is a story in its infancy, and needs more time to flesh out. The story also needs better wingers for both of the would-be centres to know for sure just how good they are, because so far only Caufield is a top-six. At this point, one Habs centre plays with one overmatched winger, and the other Habs centre plays with two overmatched wingers.
Let’s watch the talented wingers arrive in the coming years, and then there will be nothing but the best possibilities for the head coach to mix and match.
It’s been a treat to watch the Canadiens prospects so far at the World Junior Championships. Plenty of excitement always for Lane Hutson. He was, once again, sensational in his first game for the United States.
Hutson is outstanding at creating offence from the defenceman position. Much has been written about his ability to change speeds and move laterally to alter angles, allowing outstanding passes in the offensive zone.
Hutson also showed against Sweden a thrilling talent to make rapid 70-foot passes on the tape from his own zone to streaking attackers. This has been sorely lacking in the Montreal skillset for a long time.
It’s easy to imagine Hutson hitting a streaking Nick Suzuki or Cole Caufield for chances that the team just doesn’t get right now considering that the defenders don’t lead the puck up ice as effectively as Hutson can and does.
Joshua Roy doesn’t have the same excitement profile because he was a fifth-round draft choice, but it is possible that Roy is an absolute steal. Roy does all the things that first-round draft choices do. He led the Quebec Major Junior League in scoring last season, and this season he is near the top again.
TSN analyst, the highly respected, Bob McKenzie, had this to say about Roy: “Everything he does has a really strong sense of purpose. I’m really impressed with him and I think the Team Canada coaching staff is really impressed with him. I think that line has been really impressive. Roy has stepped up and done exactly what you expect out of him.”
Roy was strong last summer at the Worlds and he’s among the best players again this Christmas so far. Roy is another one of the many Canadiens prospects who could continue to develop to be a top-six. Between Roy, Sean Farrell, Filip Mesar, Owen Beck and Juraj Slafkovsky, it is extremely difficult to imagine Montreal doesn’t increase its top-six forward profile in the next two or three seasons.
It could be that two forward prospects land as top-six. If they do, that would be five top-six forwards joining Kirby Dach, Caufield and Suzuki. Five true top-six forwards is part of the formula for a team with championship potential.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca. after each Canadiens game