Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens snatch a win over the Winnipeg Jets
The math is extremely difficult.
The Montreal Canadiens don’t own the tie-break against both the Carolina Hurricanes and Columbus Blue Jackets, so they need to finish ahead in the standings to make the playoffs. Montreal must finish with seven out of a possible eight points likely to make the playoffs, and even then the other two clubs have to falter somewhat.
Montreal’s schedule is also difficult playing some of the best teams in hockey, but as the cliche goes, you can’t win four straight without winning the first one. The first one was a visit to Winnipeg to take on the Jets, who also needed the win in their attempt to take first in the Central Division over the Nashville Predators.
It’s fair to say there was a lot on the line in this one.
The Habs power play is 31st in the NHL — the very worst in the entire league. The problem all season long has been a complete lack of movement and a complete lack of compete. Firstly, you have to work just as hard for the puck as you would if you didn’t have the power play. The other team puts their best puck winners out there when they are shorthanded, and their hardest workers. So you have to match that work ethic, or forget it.
The other aspect is static players are easy to defend. When you don’t make them chase, they, the penalty killers, can measure the angles and cut off the lanes. When you move, they have an entirely difficult problem on their hands. Their box that they try to create gets stretched or changed. The angles change on passes. The coverage becomes infinitely harder.
So let’s put that in real terms with an actual play. Jordan Weal is skating instead of static, which leads to one chase. He then feeds Phillip Danault in his new location beside the net, who then passes to Joel Armia who is also skating, which means he’s harder to track, as well.
The box isn’t a box at all. The Habs have flooded a zone, which is the entire purpose of having a power play — to get an odd-man advantage in a moment that creates offence. It was the best the power play has looked all season long. Bottle that. Work hard. Move fast. The talent on this team should not be 31st in the league with the extra man.
It’s likely the difference between a playoff spot and not. A shame, but it was great to see it work a little in this one.
Watching the Habs top line against the Winnipeg Jets is one of those visions that gives belief that the Habs can compete as an upper-echelon team in time.
It’s true that, overall, the Canadiens must add some more strength on the blue line, and one more high-level finisher, but they do have so many other pieces in place, as well. The line of Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher and Phillip Danault can compete with anyone at 200-foot hockey. It’s most apparent when the match-ups are difficult, like facing Mark Scheifele who is one of the best 200-foot centres in hockey.
Yet it was the Habs who held the Jets without a shot for a full 10 minutes in the first period. It was Danault who led the charge with the hardest match-ups, and most difficult zone starts to keep the Jets at bay. Danault will never be a 70-point player, but the entire point of hockey is to get more goals than the other team, and with that as the backdrop, the Danault line is as good as just about any line in hockey.
The best line in the game is Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Patrice Bergeron. Danault and his linemates aren’t at that level, but they are just below it. When the Habs are upper echelon one day, it will be Danault’s line that takes the hard shifts against the best players to neutralize them, while a powerful but more offensive line led by Jesperi Kotkaniemi will get all the cookies with easy match-ups, offensive zone starts, and power play time.
That’s not to say that Kotkaniemi won’t also be a strong 200-foot player, though. He will, and that’s why, between those top two lines, expect the Habs to be a very tough opposition. And yes, that does mean Max Domi is likely to be on the wing, and yes, that does mean that Jonathan Drouin might not even be on the top two lines if Nick Suzuki can find an offensive upside that would put him with Domi and Kotkaniemi.
It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, but the overall point here is do not sleep on how vital Phillip Danault is with Tatar and Gallagher to future greatness.
Speaking of Domi, what an absolutely gigantic breakout season for him. He was lost in the wilderness last season with nine goals, of which five were scored with an empty net. He essentially had a four-goal season. What a chance GM Marc Bergevin took to acquire him — and what a smart move it was. Domi is running away with the scoring lead for the Habs this season. He got an assist on the Jeff Petry goal to move to 70 points on the season in 78 games. It’s a remarkable year, and he did it all while playing a new position at centre, where he had to consider his more difficult defensive responsibilities while he was piling up the points.
Domi should be re-upped as soon as he can be, because he is going to be a gigantic part of the Habs’ future for years and years. When the Habs get to the playoffs one day, with the level of compete he has, he will be a strong performer in the post-season, too.
Remarkable improvement for the long-term future of the club is Domi over Alex Galchenyuk.
It was a terrific fight late in the game by Carey Price. He is always known as this keeper who makes things look easy, but sometimes, the world gets a little wild and the move that is called for does not look pretty at all. It’s someone sprawling in desperation that can be the most important save of the night. That’s the way this one shook down late as Price stopped Blake Wheeler with a gorgeous save, diving across the goal to get his stick down in paddle form.
Price has done his part in this chase.
The only goat on the board in this 3-1 win is the National Hockey League, because they have a systemic issue. It will never be dealt with, but how can the Habs miss the playoffs with the 12th best record in the league, which is where they stand right now? The Habs have 92 points and they are out of the playoffs, and aren’t likely to make them. The Winnipeg Jets, who were second-best to the Habs on Saturday night, have 94 points, and they are in first place in a different division. Two points separate the two teams, and one team has home ice advantage as the best of their division, while the other is out of the playoffs.
Something seriously wrong there. No idea what can be done, but certainly there are about 25 guys in the Habs locker room not feeling justice was done, never mind about three million fans in Quebec.
It’s been an abysmal weekend for the Habs’ top prospects in the college hockey regionals. The number one team in the country, Saint Cloud, lost its opening contest to the 31st ranked team in the nation American International. The final count was 2-1 as the Huskies were flat in the first half of the game, and couldn’t recover. Ryan Poehling was recovering from injury the previous weekend and he was a non-factor in the game. Poehling now makes the decision whether to become a Habs player this year, or return for another season on the small town Minnesota campus. If he does go back to Saint Cloud, the odds then tilt strongly in the favour of him declaring himself a free agent next summer and never suiting up with the Habs.
Needless to say, it’s a bit of a nervous time for Montreal management, but there’s nothing that you can do about this. The same thing could happen the following year to Cayden Primeau, who perhaps does not see it as an attractive alternative to be behind Carey Price for the next seven years. Primeau was also eliminated this weekend as the Northeastern Huskies were dominated by Cornell. Everyone believes Primeau will return for sure next season for his third campaign in the goal on the Boston campus, but don’t be surprised if he signs with Montreal as soon as the following days.
However, be nervous about Poehling. He’s a different story. This is the danger of drafting college kids. They can keep getting an education while playing competitive hockey. Junior players don’t really have any purpose to keep playing junior.
The only top prospect still alive now is Nick Suzuki, who is playing his final season in the Ontario Hockey League. Suzuki was strong in the Guelph Storm’s sweep of the Kitchener Rangers. It was a walkover, basically, as Guelph now waits to see who their next opponent will be.
Josh Brook’s campaign in the playoffs in the Western Hockey League ended quickly as Moose Jaw was swept by Saskatoon. Brook debuted for the Laval Rocket on Saturday night on the Habs top pairing.
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