The Montreal Canadiens are surging in confidence as they pile up the wins in the last three weeks.
With six games over NHL .500, Montreal is carrying its best record of the year, and had every reason to believe they would build on that with the New Jersey Devils in town. The Devils are one of the shocks of the season and not for the right reasons, as they have stumbled out of the gate badly. Last year, the Habs had a terrible time with New Jersey. Despite the fact the Devils were horrible last season, Montreal lost all three times they met.
Saturday night was an opportunity for the Habs to prove that they’re better this season, but it was the exact same script as last year, as the Habs lost 4-3 in overtime.
The Habs organization has been criticized for being cautious. The feeling is that they don’t give youth a chance while always making the safe decision.
Throw that out the window with the decision already in the first half of his first NHL campaign to give Nick Suzuki the starring role at centre, while moving Max Domi over to the wing. Domi is a natural winger who took over as the team’s top scoring centre last season, because they didn’t have anyone ready to take that spot. A year later, Suzuki has left the coaching staff and general manager so confident that the top scoring centre has already been moved back to his natural spot. It’s hard to believe, but here it is.
Suzuki didn’t disappoint, either, as he got a power play goal on a set up from, who else, Domi. It was odd to watch the line perform, as it seemed it was Domi who was having the hard time adjusting to the new but old role. Suzuki looked poised beyond his years, finishing his chance for the goal smoothly as he usually does.
What this means going forward cannot be diminished. Domi on the wing gives the Habs a much better top six. The Canadiens’ top two lines are extremely strong. They are what top two lines are supposed to look like, with all six players with big talent. The future suddenly looks so extremely bright at an organizational spot at centre that was weak for forever and a day: Phillip Danault, Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Nate Thompson for now and Ryan Poehling for tomorrow.
That’s a top four they can take into the playoffs and win.
Kotkaniemi made his return to the lineup after a groin injury and was a much better player, proving himself to be perhaps the strongest forward of the night. Kotkaniemi was struggling before the injury, but he looked like a completely different player in this one. He was striding with much more strength, was able to fight off checks with much more skill and was able to win puck battles greater ease.
He was the Kotkaniemi that the Habs fell in love with last season, making a gorgeous pass to Victor Mete that could have been finished for a gorgeous goal.
Mete continues to shine as well. He is still so young at 21, but he’s mature beyond his years and already plays with such wisdom. He lacks size, but it just doesn’t matter. It doesn’t matter when you possess so much else, like a terrific first pass, superb decision making, a VO2 score that must be off the charts, and a skating stride that allows you to catch an opponent who is 15 feet ahead and about to shoot on a breakaway.
He was taken 100th overall — a remarkable theft by Trevor Timmins, landing a bona fide NHLer in a draft spot where only five per cent ever make it. Mete not only made it, he’s excelling at it.
Another defenceman who was taken, where the likelihood they become a pro is five per cent, is Cale Fleury, who e continues to look comfortable in his first NHL season. Sure, there are some giveaways and some mistakes, but for the first quarter of his first NHL season, it’s been a good run for Fleury. He also scored his first NHL goal. It was a beauty as he pinched in from the point, receiving a Danault pass. He calmly moved in from the point, pulling it to the backhand to experience that NHL joy for the first time.
One absolute must for the Habs in order to make the playoffs is they can’t have .880 as a save percentage from their backup goalie. Keith Kinkaid needs to put in a better number that allows his team to win some games. He will play 20 this season and if he puts in an .880, then the Habs have to score four or five times to get the win when he is in the net. That’s the math of it.
So it was a big night for the future hopes of this season to see Kinkaid turning away so many pucks. The Devils peppered the Habs all night, but especially in the first period when New Jersey had 18 shots. When it was finished, Kinkaid stopped 39 of 43 shots. It wasn’t enough for two points, but he stole the one point at least.
The Habs had no energy for this one after the huge win in Washington the night before. They were flat from the get-go, and didn’t really seem to have the drive for it.
It was set up as a trap game. When you have no legs, you look like you can’t even compete with one of the worst teams in the league. The long NHL schedule has a way of making great teams look bad some nights and bad teams look great other nights. Fatigue is a big factor in all of this, so when you can scratch out one point feeling as blasé as the Habs were in this one, just take the result and don’t overthink it.
The Habs are now 11-5-4. It’s a terrific record, so there’s no need to nitpick over a tired team that found a way to get a result despite it all. Sure, you can be upset somewhat, but at the end of the day, you’re not the Maple Leafs.
Away from the actual play, one has to mention Max Domi’s lack of discipline. With a 3-2 lead late in the contest, Domi took a needless penalty, knocking the stick out of a Devils player’s hands away from the action. It was impulsive and selfish. Domi didn’t like the penalty call so he said something to the referee to take an unsportsmanlike penalty.
Four minutes of penalties when it should have been zero, and all in a one-goal game. You can be certain that the head coach will be talking to Domi.
The refs had a tough night with so many penalties called that the game went longer than three hours.
However, they didn’t blow the call when it cost the Habs the game in the last minute. Who can say they ever saw a player thigh thrust the puck to disallow a goal? No one, but that’s what happened. It hurts the Habs, for sure, and that’s difficult for fans to take, but the puck doesn’t go over the line if Danault doesn’t push his thigh forward to direct it in. It’s as simple as that.
There may be a lot of offshoot issues that fans want to speak of, but at the end of it all, the bottom line is actually quite an easy call: the puck goes in only because the player thrusts his thigh forward to push it over the line.
At least we can all agree on one aspect of it — no one has ever seen that before.
The Habs had some roster changes for this one. Jesperi Kotkaniemi was healthy after a groin injury as he returned to the lineup. The game also saw the return of Charles Hudon, who has been lighting it up in Laval with four goals in the last two games. The two were needed because two were injured in the win over the Capitals.
Though Jonathan Drouin was levelled by Alexander Ovechkin, the organization says it was not on the hit that Drouin suffered an upper body injury. Drouin was put on the injured list, meaning he is out for at least one full week. Paul Byron was also hobbling in the third period, and he was left out as well.
One thing the Habs have is depth at the forward position. You can’t replace a Drouin who is relied on for a lot, but at least these days there isn’t a massive drop off in talent level, thanks to some good work from GM Marc Bergevin to have more talent than he has had before at the forward position.
The Laval Rocket were in action at Place Bell on Saturday afternoon, posting a 3-0 win. It was the first shutout in the pro career of Cayden Primeau as he stopped 20 shots in the defensive affair.
Primeau has now upped his save percentage to .929 on the season. He had only one bad start as a pro, allowing five goals in 25 shots, and that was in his last contest, so he shows a good comeback ability.
You want to know that your goalie has the fortitude to take a hard moment and put it behind him. Primeau the MVP in Laval so far this season, as they are in position for a playoff spot this season so far.
© 2019 Global News, a division of Corus Entertainment Inc.