The Montreal Canadiens suddenly feel the breath on the back of their neck in the fight for the final playoff spot. The Vancouver Canucks have won two games since their COVID-19 scare and are now within striking distance. Montreal, with only two wins in eight and only 12 goals in eight, needed to start to play better hockey on Wednesday night — and they delivered. The Habs were in Edmonton and they found one of their best games of the season, earning a vital 4-3 win.
Where would the Canadiens be without all of the strong acquisitions that GM Marc Bergevin made in the off-season? Surely, they would not be in a position to make the playoffs. Once again, their top two scorers this season led them to a massive win.
Tyler Toffoli leads the club with 22 goals on the season. That is after 41 games, so the math could not be easier to extrapolate what that goal total would be in a normal campaign. Toffoli is on pace for 44 goals. In the best season of his career, Toffoli had 31. It’s the only time that he has broken 30. This year, Toffoli is one of the best contract values in the entire league. What a signing by the much-maligned GM.
Equally intelligent was the trade that brought Josh Anderson from the Blue Jackets. While Max Domi is a healthy scratch on consecutive nights, Anderson is a force of strength and speed that defenders just cannot handle when he puts his head down and drives to the net.
Anderson had two more goals for 17 on the season. Last year, when he could not shoot because of a bad shoulder, Anderson had a single goal. The GM saw that this was a temporary issue. He not only traded for Anderson after a one-goal season; he then signed him to a long-term deal. Anderson is on pace for a 34-goal season, if it were 82 games as usual. That would easily eclipse his best year of 27.
The final acquisition that shone again is Jake Allen. With the injury to Carey Price, imagine if the club were relying again this year on a reject goalie from another club to try to right this ship toward a playoff spot. Allen has better metrics than Price, whether it be save percentage or analytics. Allen has been worth every penny.
Shea Weber has taken a lot of heat for poor play recently. He was even asked about it on Tuesday and deflected from answering as he was evasive to the media. Instead, he chose to answer his critics on the ice with his best game in two months. Leon Draisaitl is a powerful player who can be such a physical force that he finds no match. In this one, Weber was Weber as he was known back in the day. He was dominant physically. He met the challenge of Draisaitl and gave as much as he got. This is the kind of game that must have exhausted Weber. The physical toll that this game had will make the beer after taste that much better. That was a game to be proud of for the captain. He competed like a lion.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is arriving. It may be another four years or even five until you see what is the very best of him, but there are enough pieces in place to give you a glimpse of what the puzzle will finally look like. The power that he is bringing to the sheet now that he did not in his first year is like a fawn turning into a moose. Kotkaniemi was using power moves on the outside to blast past would-be checkers. He was winning puck battles in the corners and behind the net with ease. He was winning those battles and then leaving his checker in his contrails.
Then there is Kotkaniemi’s vision after the battles are won and the ice is open. His assist on the Artturi Lehkonen goal was exactly what Kotkaniemi is best at. He won the puck at centre. He won the blue line. He created space for himself with feints and lateral movement, and then he chose his option and taped a pass perfectly to Lehkonen who had a tap in. This was a world-class assist.
Kotkaniemi does this action like a future first-line centre. He has that in his game. It was that look — that play, in fact —that the scouts saw in him in Finland. He was chosen third overall because he possesses the skill set of that goal. He’s about to show it regularly.
What’s the ceiling on Kotkaniemi? It could be about 60 points, but he will get there. He may even get higher than that. Be patient for it. It’s a rare player who is finished growing his game at 20. He’s got a lot more than this to give. On Wednesday night, it felt like he was pushing on a higher ceiling.
It was an extremely strong game from the Canadiens, but there were a couple of season-long issues that came to the fore in the Oilers’ comeback in the final two and a half minutes. Every single face-off in the Canadiens zone with the Oilers goalie pulled was won by the Oilers. They took possession and then used an entire shift trying to get a goal to get back into the game. No matter who the Canadiens use in the key draws, it does not matter, they just do not have a reliable winner with a lot on the line.
The other big issue at the end of the game is the biggest issue on the team the entire season. The bulk of the defenders on the club do not have a strong ability to clear it out. Weber strangely has a 105 miles per hour shot when he is trying to score, but he does not have a 15 miles per hour wrist or snap shot when he is trying to clear the puck. It’s a complete mystery why he is so challenged with such an easy play to execute.
It’s not just Weber, however. The club has two other defenders who are always out at the end of the game who also can not execute effectively a clearing attempt.
One of the plays that players do not use effectively — and it’s a complete mystery why — is the clearing attempt that is not an attempt at power wrapping it around the boards, or slapping it as hard as possible through the defencemen at the blue line, but the simple alley-oop.
This is a play that when PK Subban was a Canadiens defender, he did regularly and with great skill. A whack around the boards can lose speed quickly as it hits each stanchion. A hard shot to the blue line can find a defender from time to time. But there is a guarantee that no one is 20-feet tall to stop an alley-oop. Add to that, the alley-oop, unlike the other clearing attempts, is very rarely an icing call.
These two issues that came out strongly in the final two minutes may not seem like much after a win, but you will notice them after a loss — that’s a guarantee. For now, no harm done, but there will be one day if they don’t find solutions to these two long-standing issues.
Call of the Wilde!
It’s difficult to know the plan of the Montreal Canadiens, but for now, let’s give them the benefit of the doubt. Cole Caufield could play three games in four nights for the Laval Rocket, and that’s exactly what he needs: to play hockey. It’s not to his benefit to sit in the stands when games are on practising with the big club, if there is a better alternative.
It would have taken a private jet to get Caufield back east again from Edmonton, because a seven-day quarantine would have been required if he flew commercial. The private jet he could have taken is the same one that arrived in Edmonton to bring in Charlie Lindgren on an emergency basis because of the concussion of Carey Price. Surely, an organization valued at $1.4 billion would not have hesitated to send Caufield because of the costs of another flight.
It also makes zero sense to sit him for three games in four days for the Rocket when he was brought to the pros to play. Occam’s Razor is your best friend in situations like this. That is a theory where the simplest explanation will be the answer. So the answer here must be that Caufield is going to be used at some point soon. That is the reason that he needs to be in Alberta.
He was not chosen to play for Montreal against Edmonton on Wednesday. This is also a cap issue that the team faces that is extremely complex, but basically ends with the bottom line of only an injury to a forward gets Caufield in easily, and a roster move gets him in as well, but with a cost. The cost is that the player they send down to bring up Caufield is basically locked into the taxi squad until another injury.
Perhaps he will play against Calgary on Friday. If he doesn’t play at all, the club will look inept for not spending a little money to get him back to Montreal to play for the Laval Rocket for three contests.
It’s going to be interesting to see how this shakes out, but experience says don’t preemptively get emotional about Caufield not being handled well, until he is actually, in fact, not handled well.
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