Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens kick off home stretch with 4-3 shootout win over Buffalo

It’s the home stretch for the Montreal Canadiens, with only two weeks left in the season.  A busy week started with road games in Buffalo and tomorrow night in Philadelphia.

The Sabres need every win they can get as they are still in the hunt for a playoff spot, yet their extra hunger didn’t translate into an easy night.

It went to a shootout, with Montreal winning 4-3 in round six.

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While there have been more losses than wins this season, it still has been enjoyable to follow the Canadiens this season on most nights. The reason is that organizationally it is exciting to watch this team learn how to play the modern game.

They have the general manager in Kent Hughes who wants to see the modern game and a head coach in Martin St. Louis who can teach it. For so many frustrating years, the club acquired stay-at-home defencemen and then espoused the virtues of this pedestrian style.

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Now, the Canadiens are pressuring the puck all over the ice. Defenders are attacking the offensive zone, including leading the rush, as if they are forwards. There is no first forechecker designated anymore. It is simply who is the first one into the zone to lead the forecheck, then the other forwards assume their roles according to the order of their arrival.

The responsibilities of each player can change on each attack into the offensive zone. A defenceman can even be the first forechecker under Martin St. Louis. The goal is attack the puck with speed, and take away time all over the ice and at every opportunity.

It is so engaging to watch these players learn how to play in this manner this season. Half of the team is from Laval, yet the system is so advanced that these players of lesser talent look, at times, like stars playing higher than their station.

Take the first Montreal goal as a strong example of St. Louis’ ‘modern hockey’. Defender Mike Matheson is the first on the rush, so he takes the puck without any fear to the net, then he is pushed wide and takes it behind the net.

Behind the net? A defender? What decade is this?

It’s the 2020s and it is beautiful.

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Matheson comes out the other side after he is pushed wide. He dishes the puck off to Jonathan Drouin who looks for an attacker on the other side to complete the play.

He finds there another defenceman rushing up, and uncovered. The hockey is moving so quickly, it is so difficult to defend. Jordan Harris takes the Drouin pass and scores on his own rebound from two feet out. Harris’ check is a Buffalo winger still at the blue line getting a good view of modern hockey from 40 feet away.

The Canadiens opened the scoring with a defender leading the rush and the other defender also rushing toward the goal. It is beautiful. All five players are forwards, and all five players are defenders. The goal is take time and space away, and come in numbers. Always come in numbers.

The Canadiens will finish the season with the fifth-worst record in hockey. Considering Montreal’s injuries this season, often going with half a team from Laval, they should have finished in the basement.

They also should have entertained us about as much as Dominique Ducharme entertained us in the first half of the season last year. It should have been an absolutely dreadful and boring year.

What we got instead was entertainment most nights watching this band of brothers give us much more. Thank Martin St. Louis. He’s the modern day coach for the modern era of hockey.

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Mike Matheson isn’t playing the best hockey of his life in a vacuum. Kirby Dach isn’t having a breakout year by accident.  Denis Gurianov isn’t awake suddenly just because. Four forwards from Laval aren’t looking like NHLers, all at the same time, because there is something in the water. Justin Barron isn’t figuring it out all by himself.

They are part of a system that allows them to be their best selves. Imagine what Martin St. Louis can do with his players when the rebuild is complete. Imagine how he can teach a budding superstar in his midst.

With a little bit of good fortune, this could be sensational.

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It’s just not been the pattern this season to lament here. This season has been about development — the development of players, and the development of modern hockey top down in the organization.

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There simply is nothing to complain about. This is exactly what was hoped for.

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Logan Mailloux completed his regular season for the London Knights on Sunday with his 25th goal of the season. That final goal made Mailloux the highest goal scoring defennceman in the Ontario Hockey League.

Mailloux wasn’t the top goal scorer per game, though, as that honour belongs to Brandt Clarke. Clarke was in a league of his own this year, averaging almost two points per game in the short time that he played in the OHL. Mailloux’s season, though, was formidable.

There’s a lot of conjecture how good Mailloux can be with the opinions wide-ranging. However, the Canadiens organization is not hesitant at all to proclaim him as a definite NHL player. Francis Bouillon believes that he has all the tools to be a strong defender. The organization believes that he is one of the best prospects, if not the best Canadiens prospect not in the NHL.

Mailloux will need to be taught how to defend better than he has shown so far, and that’s where Martin St. Louis comes in. He is a teaching genius, and players are saying that they are learning aspects of hockey that they had not even thought of before listening to the Canadiens head coach.

For hockey skills alone, Mailloux has vast amounts. He has a bomb of a slap shot that has been clocked at 102 miles per hour. He also has a wickedly accurate wrist shot. He skates well, and has a nose for offence. He can rush the puck up the ice on his own, and he can feed it quickly up ice as well. He will be a strong point producer from the blue line. He is the modern defender.

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Mailloux is also a big player who knows how to use his size to level big hits, and win puck battles. Physically, he is exactly what is required from a blue liner. He is an ominous presence with a mean streak as well.

Where he tops out as an NHLer will be about his decision making. If he plays better defence, it is easy to see him with Mike Matheson on the first pair. The club needs right side help, and he can be the best right side player on the team, if he develops his brain for the game.

The club is thin on the right side in the future. They likely need to draft another right side defender that has top-four potential. Justin Barron is his top competition now, and Mailloux projects with a higher upside at this point. Kaiden Guhle can also be move to the right side, but that is sub-optimal for Guhle to be his best self.

If Mailloux learns only at an average level how to defend, he will still be a second pair defender, and only if he can not figure it out at all defensively will he be a third pair player. He will be an NHL defender, though. He is that good on the offensive side of the puck.

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Mailloux is already signed by the Canadiens and next year will activate the first year of his entry level contract. He will finish his time at London in the playoffs starting this week in Ontario, then in the autumn, he will begin his attempt to make the NHL.

Expect him to be on the roster on opening night, if GM Kent Hughes has moved a veteran in the off-season. If Joel Edmundson and David Savard are still on the club, it is 50-50 whether it is Montreal or Laval to start for Mailloux. He could fall victim to a numbers game until some veterans are moved to make way for the next generation.

Without any changes to the roster, nine defenders will fight for six spots.  It’s going to be fascinating.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game.

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