The Montreal Canadiens were down some manpower as they faced the difficult test of the Golden Knights in Las Vegas on Thursday night.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is dealing with a groin injury so he was left out in favour of Jordan Weal. The injury meant Claude Julien needed a centre, and he chose Nick Suzuki to show how much confidence he has in the rookie. The Habs also went with Keith Kinkaid in net, allowing Carey Price a night to rest.
These lineup changes made an already big challenge more difficult, but the Habs pulled through with a 5-4 victory over the Golden Knights.
The points leaders of the Montreal Canadiens this season are Jonathan Drouin and Brendan Gallagher. One you expected, and one you didn’t — Drouin is certainly silencing his critics in the first 13 games of the season. With his hard-working 2-2 goal, Drouin moved to seven goals and 12 points on the season. At almost a point per game, he is the best news of this young season so far.
A lot of critics piled on during the last quarter of 2018-19 when Drouin saw a sweet season go sour with a terrible final 20 games. But he is working so much harder this season for pucks in all circumstances, and Drouin seems to be more in position to work just as hard when a goal is in the offing. His legs are moving all the time, and he’s a much better player because of it.
Stamina has been an issue, but there is no sign of it presently. We will see if Drouin can carry the same intensity in games 60 to 82 this year, and if he can, the Habs will be thrilled with the player for which they traded. Last year’s 53 points tied a career high; it appears Drouin will beat that this season. The stage is set for it, at least.
Back-to-back nights for the Habs meant Montreal was down 4-2 late in the game, and it was an impressive show of resilience to force overtime. Gallagher scored the tying marker with Vegas’ goalie pulled. He was where you expect him always: right in front of the net, where he took a feed from Joel Armia to direct it in.
It was an important point to force overtime, but the Habs weren’t done. Jeff Petry played an outstanding game overall, including with the pass to Max Domi, who put a puck through Marc-Andre Fleury’s five-hole.
The Habs, who played two games in 24 hours with travel involved, picked up their biggest win of the season on Thursday night. It’s the type of win that is so big on an emotional level that it can lead to a confidence that lasts.
Max Pacioretty looks engaged playing for the Golden Knights, but to look at it statistically, he has two goals this season. He’s on pace for 12 goals on the year. Now, surely, he will get more than that, but that is the present pace. Meanwhile, Nick Suzuki played centre for the first time in his career, and he looks like he might be destined to play there in the future.
Suzuki played smart defensively and was more engaged offensively in the middle instead of on the wing. He was playing a tough hockey team in Vegas and did not look at all uncomfortable with the immense challenge. In fact, he looked like he’s been doing it at the NHL level for a long time; it was very impressive for a mere 20-year-old rookie. Add Tomas Tatar to the mix, playing well on one of the best lines in the NHL with Phillip Danault and Gallagher, and then add a second-rounder, and you have one hell of a Wilde Horse awarded to Marc Bergevin in this trade.
Pacioretty is a strong player. He will get more than 12 goals this season, but even with that, this is looking like an extremely lopsided trade in favour of the Habs GM. Bergevin had his cards on the table when he made this trade. That usually does not end up in your favour, but like Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic in dealing Matt Duchene, Bergevin was able to get maximum value for a player who he needed to move out of the city to start fresh. He has made a lot of strong trades in his tenure, but the bottom line is playoff spots — and it’s time for some of those, too.
The Habs are going to need more from Keith Kinkaid. He entered the game with a .875 save percentage, which is not even close to good enough to help the cause this season. Kinkaid had a poor save percentage last season as well so it was somewhat a mystery why Bergevin thought he had a much better performance in his arsenal this year. Kinkaid allowed a poor goal late in the first period as Alex Tuch fired the puck through his five-hole for a 2-1 tally.
In the third period, the third goal against the Habs was even worse. From in close, Cody Glass had only one place to shoot it, and that was low. Kinkaid has only one job, and that’s to have the bottom half of the net covered. Again, he let one through the five-hole.
Bad goals happen, for sure, but when they happen too often, it’s not unlucky, it’s who you are. Carey Price has a save percentage of .914, which is moving into the realm of what the Habs need. A .925 save percentage is the performance that needs to be attained, but if the backup can’t get his number to start with a nine then the playoffs are going to be a challenge. The Habs need 20 good games from Kinkaid, and his 4.54 goals-against average just won’t suffice.
Watch how this story develops. The Habs missed the playoffs by two points last season with Antti Niemi; all that was needed was a slight upgrade. Did the GM get one? Not so far.
Thursday was a difficult night for the Wisconsin Badgers in Happy Valley as the Penn State Nittany Lions ripped them apart 6-1. However, it was also a night when Cole Caufield showed why there are so many reasons for Habs fans to be excited about last year’s first-round draft pick.
Caufield scored a gorgeous goal on an already patented snapshot into the top corner. That’s eight goals on the season already for Caufield, who leads all of college hockey in goals scored this year.
It wasn’t just the goal, though, for Caufield. There is so much more to be impressed with from him as a player, primarily the fact that his size does not seem to stop him at all from participating in hard-nose hockey. He is very much like Gallagher in this regard. Caufield has a low centre of gravity so when he takes a hit, he stays on his feet and remains in dangerous positions to do damage offensively. He is a beast to knock off the puck.
His size is not an issue when he battles for the puck, either. He also has an offensive ability to protect the puck while skating in the offensive zone. There was a shift in which he had it on a string for 15 seconds and was engaged the entire time, creating danger as he was chased around the ice.
The only criticism in watching Caufield for five games this season is that there are times when he can be too passive defensively. He doesn’t seek out the defensive play with which he could help to clear the zone but, rather, waits for the play to come to him. It’s a minor criticism because he is patrolling his spot on the ice as required, but with that said, he could still get himself in the battle a bit more.
All in all, the more you see Caufield, the more you realize the Habs have stolen this player at 15 overall. He had only the one goal in this one, but there were three other occasions in which he had positioned himself in a dead zone, waiting for a pass through the seam, but a not-creative-enough forward was unable to see the chance Caufield had created for himself just by altering angles to get in the clear. If he got the cross-ice pass, it could be easily assumed he would have one-timed it into the net.
Caufield does so much well, it’s hard not to rave about him, and this was in a 6-1 loss. The Badgers play Penn State again on Friday night in Pennsylvania.
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