After 21 games played, the Montreal Canadiens have exactly the same record this season as last year.
Last year at this time, the Habs were right in the middle of their worst run of the year without a win in five games. This season, they may have begun to turn the narrative and prove they’re better than last year’s edition with a win over the Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre. This five-game stretch could be telling to see if Montreal can go a different direction.
But so far, the team is struggling after a 2-1 overtime loss to the Senators.
Nick Suzuki continues to shine — the progression of the Habs centre is outstanding in the first 22 games of his career. Suzuki added another goal to his total, moving him to six on the season. The way that he calmly sent the puck into a gaping net has to be noted. Sure, the net was open, but the relaxed nature with which he slid it home was impressive: he didn’t rush the shot, and he didn’t make a mistake with a hurried anxiety. His heart rate seemed to be about 60 when he waited and picked his spot.
The leading goal man on the Habs is Brendan Gallagher with nine. Tomas Tatar and Joel Armia have seven. Suzuki, meanwhile, is right on their heels. That’s remarkable for a player who many didn’t think would even earn a spot on the team. Suzuki’s brain has been drawing most of the praise, and justifiably so, but no one should minimize his skill set. Suzuki has outstanding hands, and though he isn’t a fast skater, he has an innate ability to lose his man with a highly skilled set of feints.
Suzuki is 20 years of age, yet he has gained the confidence of the head coach so significantly that he’s on during the last minute of a 1-1 game. This is a Marc Bergevin trade that is going to pay dividends for a long time.
Another rookie shining in this one was Cale Fleury. This kid is going to be getting a deserved reputation soon of being a massive and punishing hitter. He took a Senators player right out of the contest with a tremendous open ice hit, and also had a sensational rush that almost resulted in the 2-0 goal for the Habs.
Fleury is starting to improve in terms of working with speed. This season, his weakness so far has been holding onto the puck just a little too long, then being robbed of it. Slowly, he’s learning how quickly he needs to head-man the puck to avoid trouble. Fleury is looking like a keeper the more he plays.
He hasn’t yet earned a spot night after night, and he may easily get the February fatigue in his first NHL season, but for now this is impressive.
The praise for Nate Thompson, on the other hand, is getting a bit much.
Fans seem enamoured of him for his face-off prowess, his defensive abilities, his penalty killing strengths, and not hurting the club as a fourth-line centre. Let’s break this down a little bit, though, and see if all of this praise is actually warranted.
Success in the face-off circle is the area in which you can give Thompson his due, and let’s not disparage what it means to win a draw. However, after that, it’s easy to find faults. Let’s start with the penalty kill. He’s supposed to be such a great addition to this area, but the Habs are 31st out of 31 teams in the league. How about the offensive contribution to the club? Thompson has one goal this season in 22 games. One goal, but he is treated like there’s just no question that his spot is a given on the fourth line.
How about his Corsi 5-on-5 this season? Is he a part of the Habs leading the attack, or is he defending more often than not? Well, this is where he falls apart completely, as Thompson, in a league that has seen 743 players take to the ice, is ranked 608th in Corsi. There really only are 630 regulars in the NHL, so Thompson is essentially pretty close to last in the league among players who dress every night.
Thompson’s Corsi is 45. That is the worst on the Canadiens.
Sure, there are many who are not enamoured by the Corsi statistic, but isn’t it slightly unsettling to even people that hate it that Thompson is nearly last in the league among regular NHLers and last on the Montreal Canadiens? Incidentally, if you’re wondering, the best Corsi on the Habs are all from the same line. Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, and Brendan Gallagher all have a Corsi around 58, which is tops in the entire league again among forward lines. The Danault line is a beast.
The second-best line in the league is the Elias Pettersson trio in Vancouver, you might be surprised to learn.
This game was looking for a hero for a long time, but the Senators were forcing it to be an east-west game, when the Habs would prefer to go north-south. The strategy this season to beat Montreal is similar to last year: slow down the entire affair and make sure it is a low-event contest.
It’s easy to point a finger at the Habs for ineffective play, but this is by design from the other club. A 5-4 game would be more exciting, for sure, but the other club is looking to make sure that doesn’t happen. You don’t exchange chances with a team that is fifth in the league in goals for and 20th in the league in goals against. You make sure that they don’t get to play to their strength.
With all of that said, this is beginning to look a bit like last year. The Habs are winless in three, squandering points against teams that they need to beat to make the playoffs. It’s likely that New Jersey, Columbus and Ottawa all miss the playoffs, but the Habs just finished a three-game run against them and managed only two points.
That may not be good enough.
What a perfect ceremony for Guy Carbonneau before the contest. The presentation was outstanding and extremely creative, too, with a mosaic of his moments superimposed on the scoreboard, along with quotes from some of the greats in the game including Bob Gainey, Patrick Roy, and Wayne Gretzky.
The ovation that followed was spine-tingling and it was obvious what it meant to number 21. Carbonneau stood in the middle of the ice and soaked it all in. It was easy to see that Carbonneau was a bit surprised by the love shown from the fans who were relentless. It was also interesting to watch the Habs bench to note all of those players of present-day realize anew what passion these fans have for their hockey heroes, and perhaps the 1919-20 Canadiens dreamed just a little bit of a day that they could find playoff glory and receive an ovation such as this.
No one does these moments like the Canadiens.
Ryan Poehling is finding life as a pro difficult so far, and it’s not that surprising. Not everyone can just leap onto the scene like Suzuki and immediately impress. Poehling has now gone 12 games straight without a single point. That includes four games in the NHL and eight games in the AHL. Poehling’s Laval Rocket dominated in Toronto on Wednesday night, but lost 2-1 in overtime. Matthew Peca got the only Laval goal. He has only two on the season.
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