It’s now or never. If the Montreal Canadiens are of any belief that they can come back to make a playoff run, it has to be right now.
The Canadiens have five straight home games and nine of their next 10 at the Bell Centre.
It will take a massive run, and it had to begin against the Winnipeg Jets. It did with an easy 4-1 win.
When Kirby Dach plays centre, everyone looks better. Dach lined up with Josh Anderson and Mike Hoffman against Winnipeg and immediately their games came alive. Dach simply finds players on the ice and makes them better.
In the second period, Dach, with a zone entry, appeared to be in a bit of trouble. Where many lesser centres throw the puck into the corners, Dach, instead, shuffled a nifty little pass to Hoffman to free him straight to goal, where he ripped a shot top corner.
In the third period, there was more Dach magic. He started the zone exit with a brilliant pass to Mike Matheson who took it up ice as the classic puck-moving defenceman. Matheson took it all the way to goal before being stopped. Dach picked it up and did a brilliant wraparound. The rebound potted into a gaping net by Anderson.
As management contemplates the future, they, no doubt, thought they were weak at centre, but they really are not going to be. That doesn’t mean they should not draft centres in 2023 with their two picks in the first round because the more forwards who can play centre, the better.
The ability of centres to exit the defensive zone well and enter the offensive zone with the puck doesn’t have to be from only the centre. The more players that skill comes from, the more talented your team is overall. If the winger can do it as well, it’s a better hockey team.
Just to dream a little about the future line-up, Dach at one centre and Suzuki at another centre, with the two first-round draft picks in 2023 on the wings, would make for a formidable top-six on the Canadiens in two seasons.
No one knows exactly what the line-up is going to look like, but the more we see this 21-year-old, third pick overall Dach, the more we see that he must play in the middle of the ice. The elements he adds to the shifts that he plays cannot be ignored.
The Canadiens down-the-middle is not yet up to the strength that it was when Philip Danault allowed only three even strength goals an entire season, but it will track to that high level if Dach keeps improving. Dach can be a part of something special when the four players he plays with are close to his skill set.
Add Owen Beck who has strong two-way abilities on the third line, and it’s an improving middle of the sheet. Beck said on Tuesday when the Canadian Junior Team gold medal winners were feted at the Bell Centre that he is gunning to make the Habs as soon as next season.
That’s lofty from Beck, but all he has done is be better than expected every time he’s been on the ice for Montreal in the pre-season, Mississauga in the OHL, Canada at the WJC, then Peterborough back in the OHL.
Whoever Beck plays with, plays better. Just like Dach.
It’s so beautiful to watch a puck-moving defenceman add an extra element to a hockey game. The Habs have been so sorely lacking in this area for so long. The likes of PK Subban and Andrei Markov have not been replaced. It’s hurt the offence tremendously.
However, this contest finally had some contributions from the back end as zone entries and crisp passes weren’t foreign, but likely. Mike Matheson with his first game back, and he was outstanding finding outlets and pushing the play up ice faster.
Justin Barron hasn’t figured it out in the defensive end yet, but his play in transition is so good. He also made a tremendous pass for the tying marker by Evgenii Dadonov. Barron found him open and put it right in the perfect spot for a one-time slap shot.
Defenders must provide strength at both ends of the ice in this modern game. There are many teams clamouring to trade for Joel Edmundson to toughen up their roster for a playoff run, and if that’s the way they want to go, they’ll receive no issue here.
Bring on a smooth skating Barron, a complete Matheson, a unicorn on offence Lane Hutson, and a wicked shot from Logan Mailloux. Let’s fire wagon this thing for some real entertainment in seasons to come.
The only minor negative of this surprising contest is the continued difficulty of Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield to have a strong shot share playing without Dach.
At the last minute on Tuesday, the Habs lost Jonathan Drouin to injury, so the club was forced to ice only 11 forwards. That meant Jesse Ylonen was bumped up to the first line.
Ylonen would never get a better opportunity to show his talents than to play with Caufield and Suzuki. Ylonen looked strong with crisp passes and an intelligent two-way game.
However, overall, as a line, the difficulty continues as the three were all around a poor 25-per cent shot share. Suzuki and Caufield need a winger who can exit the zone effectively, and play heady defence, so they can play more of the game in the offensive zone.
Suzuki and Caufield have big skills around the other goalie, but without a strong defensive solution at the other wing, there’s an issue defensively. It’s not an issue that will be difficult to correct when more talent arrives, but this year, it’s a problem — a problem that only Dach has been able to correct.
Fans were feeling a lot of worry over the move of Sean Monahan to the long-term injured reserve list Tuesday morning. They feared that would be the end of a draft choice for him in a deadline day trade, if he could not play leading up to March 3, 2023.
However, there is absolutely no reason to fear as Monahan is progressing well according to the organization, and continues his recovery without any setback.
This was entirely a cap move by the Canadiens to cover for the rash of injuries on the weekend to three players. Juraj Slafkovsky, Joel Armia, and Jake Evans were all put on the injured reserve. That meant money had to be found to bring Rem Pitlick and Rafael-Harvey Pinard onto the active NHL roster.
The only way to find the money was to put Monahan on the LTIR. That gave the Canadiens over $6 million in cap relief. That sounds like they are in a tough spot money-wise for a long time, but they actually are not. When Jake Allen returns, the Canadiens cap space will be comfortable again.
Monahan can then come back off the LTIR list as soon as he is prepared to play again which remains exactly the same timeline Monday morning as it was Tuesday morning.
It all sounds dangerous in a way, but again, it is actually for the Canadiens, considering their long-term goals, not that dangerous at all. If they were unable to put a player like Monahan on the LTIR, they would simply dress fewer players to get under the cap, and not actually call up anyone to replace the injured.
That would be a horrific scenario if they were fighting for a playoff spot, but considering their spot in the standings, there is no worry at all. The only worry, in fact, is the severity of the injuries suffered this weekend.
The Canadiens promise updates on the length of time the three players will be out later in the week.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.