Habs’ fans that turned off the game after midnight when their club was down two with little time remaining woke up to surprising news this morning.
One of the gutsiest comebacks in recent NHL memory – second game in a back-to-back in the midst of a western road swing with the backup goalie in nets…in Las Vegas, no less. The Knights have lost three games in the past two seasons in which they scored four or more goals – two of those have been to the Canadiens.
The improbability goes even further – the Knights had lost one game at home in franchise history in which they scored 4+ goals. And it wasn’t while holding a two-goal lead with seven minutes left playing an eastern conference team in a back-to-back with Fleury in nets.
Character wins like that can be a galvanizing force in the dressing room. Team chemistry is not something that can be measured, but more often than not, there are defining moments and games that help clubs come together and find success in the future, and last night’s wild comeback may be a defining moment for a club that has missed the playoffs the past two seasons, and not won a playoff round in the past four.
A key to Montreal’s 5-2 record in the past seven that has included two western road swings is the improved play of captain Shea Weber. After starting the season with no goals and two assists in his first six games, Weber has two goals and seven points in his last seven.
Montreal has needed its captain to contribute offensively – and that has certainly been the case in the past two weeks. He is stepping up into the play in the offensive zone much more frequently – a posiive sign that he is regaining his confidence as the road to recovery from major knee surgery two years ago continues.
The club’s other 6-4 defender is also playing with more confidence recently.
Ben Chiarot has been put back with Jeff Petry in the past three games, and he has responded with his best three-game stretch of the season. Chiarot was signed as a UFA to replace Jordie Benn, especially on the penalty kill, and after some rough outings in that regard, he finally looks to be settling in.
Chiarot’s improved play is not surprising…in fact, it was expected.
In watching his game from a scouting perspective, it was hard not to see that he was an upgrade on Jordie Benn, even if there were some early-season struggles. It is not easy to be thrown into a top-unit penalty killing role on a new eam with a new partner under a new defensive system. Anyone who expected him to step in and be flawless in his first ten games was not taking those factors into account. Patience was required.
Chiarot is bigger and faster than Benn, hits harder, moves the puck better, and makes less errors overall. In fact – he reminds one a lot of former NHL defenceman Luke Richardson, who also happens to be his new defence coach. Give it a little more time, but I expect Chiarot’s game to only get better as he becomes more and more comfortable in his new surroundings.
It has taken a half dozen years, but we are now seeing the goal-scoring potential of Jo Drouin at the NHL level. Any player who scores 41 goals in 49 CHL games at the age of 18 has 30-goal NHL upside – it has always been there. He has always had the release, shot, and skill to post 30-goal seasons in the NHL; it now appears that he also has the desire. That was the missing component. His former junior coach Dom Ducharme deserves some plaudits for working with Drouin in the offseason and showing him plenty of video.
Shoot more, drive to the net more…work harder..and voila!! The harder you work the luckier you get, and Drouin is discovering that so far this season. Methinks that the hometown boy much prefers being given standing ovations and adoration from Montrealers instead of criticism and trade rumours, and because of that he will remain motivated and inspired to continue working hard. He appears to have “got it”.
Nick Suzuki looked more comfortable in the third-line center role than Kotkaniemi had in his past ten games. When Kotkaniemi returns, the coaching staff will have a tough decision to make. Do they put the 19-year-old back into a role where he was clearly struggling? Do they move him to the wing?
Since his struggles in the preseason, I have suggested that we should not be shocked by a demotion to the AHL if Kotkaniemi’s poor play continued. Three points in a dozen games playing a top-nine role are not enough, especially when you are also struggling with turnovers and defensive assignments.
The extra weight he put on this summer may not have been put on properly – he does not appear to be any quicker – if anything, he appears to be a step behind at this point. Does his speed improve playing 12 minutes a night or 20? Obviously, the latter.
KK is having major confidence issues, and it may only get worse if he is jammed back into the same role when he is healthy. The correct move right now for his development is to send him down to the AHL and insert him into a top-line role. If he still struggles with his offensive confidence in Laval, the correct move come mid December may well be to send him to play in the World Junior tournament where he most assuredly would be a factor.
There is no huge rush on Kotkaniemi – it is irrelevant that he played all of last season in the NHL..if he needs time in the AHL, you send him down. KK is not one to mope and become a distraction – he will take a demotion in stride, and hold no animosity. He knows as well as anyone that he is not playing well. Brady Tkachuk is struggling and he is already 20…Zadina will soon be 20 and he is in the AHL..these kids often need time – it is a marathon, not a sprint.
So….you call up a forward from Laval, send KK down, and promote someone to the third line to play with Suzuki and Lehkonen in place of Byron. Right now, that honour should go to Nick Cousins. He has five points in seven games playing a fourth-line role with grit and vigour – he deserves a look in the top nine.