Home sweet home.
The Montreal Canadiens came all the way back from a two-goal deficit, scoring two goals in the third period to tie the game and then winning it in overtime with a tap-in goal by Kirby Dach that was manufactured almost exclusively by Sean Monahan.
The Canadiens keep giving off signals that things are going to be different in the regular season than they were for the latter years of the Marc Bergevin era. Young, mobile puck-moving defencemen, a club that can come back from two-goal deficits in the third period….a club that can win at home.
In the past three seasons, the Canadiens were 38-54-14 at home, a win percentage of .424 which was the worst in the league. A team with the best home crowd in the NHL has no business being the worst club on home ice, and the early returns this season indicate that trying to win at the Bell Centre will be no easy task for opposing teams.
So far this season, it’s a different story. Montreal has played two of the stronger teams in the Eastern Conference and came away with the wins. It was also nice to see them winning in overtime, something that the club has found difficult to do in the last couple of seasons. Marty St. Louis is a lot more aggressive in his approach to offence than the last three coaches.
He’s not afraid to have five forwards on a power play, and then in overtime, when the Canadians drew a penalty, he went with four forwards, and it paid off. Sean Monahan has looked like the player we saw before all of his hip surgeries. He is skating well and we already knew about his offensive skills. He’s got great vision and puck skills.
Suzuki’s line was buzzing in the first period and ended the game strongly. Cole Caufield, in particular, was flying out there last night, and he got rewarded with an open-net goal on a great feed by Jonathan Drouin that tied the game with 2:20 left in the third period.
The Canadiens were full marks for the win, and should never have been down 2-0 midway through the game. Three of the four lines fared well last night. The only one that looked overmatched at times was Dvorak’s line matched up against Malkin, who scored both of Pittsburgh’s goals.
Jeff Petry did not have a memorable return to Montreal, being booed every time he touched the puck and taking three penalties, with the last one costing his team the game. Ryan Poehling was much more effective, and came very close to putting the game away late with Pittsburgh leading 2-1 when he was sprung on a breakaway.
Harris and Guhle continue to play like seasoned veterans, and Guhle was rewarded with a pair of assists, his first points in the NHL. Both are playing with great poise, and are keeping mistakes to a minimum.
Here was Guhle’s first assist on a great lead pass to Suzuki, who buried his own rebound after circling the net:
His first-ever NHL assist was a great one – showing off his skating, vision and passing skills. That backhand pass to Suzuki at full speed which led him perfectly was a prime example of Guhle’s underrated offensive skills. He is going to put up good offensive numbers in the NHL while also being a premier shutdown defenceman.
Guhle played 24:43 last night, much of it matched up against Sidney Crosby, and he passed yet another test with flying colours.
When Joel Edmundson and Mike Matheson return to the lineup there will be some tough decisions to make regarding the five left defencemen. One will need to be moved to the right side and one will likely be sent to the minors.
The most likely candidate for demotion will be Xhekaj. He has not been poor by any means but Guhle and Harris have been better, and Harris has more experience playing on the right side Xhekaj has picked up four minors in the past three games while being credited with five hits. That ratio needs to be at least 3-to-1 in favour of hits, not 5-to-4, especially when the penalties are for interference and tripping and not for being too strong or rough.
There will be no use in keeping Xhekaj around as the spare defenceman when the blueline is healthy, so he is likely to end up going down to Laval to play 20 minutes a game and continue working on his defensive game. Xhekaj has played relatively well so far but there have been a few instances where he was caught flatfooted or lost his check and gave up breakaways. He definitely has shutdown defenceman potential – it just may still be a year away.
Dach ended up being the hero last night even if Monahan did most of the work on his tap-in OT goal, and it was nice to see Dach score his first goal in a Habs uniform.
Jake Evans played more than Dach last night despite being on the fourth line. The one concern coming out of the game was that Dach was 0 for 5 in the faceoff circle, and, so far, has won just 30 percent of his faceoffs on the season. That stat has to improve.
Slafkovsky has yet to pick up a point in four NHL games but it’s not due to a lack of opportunities. He had an outstanding first period versus the Penguins, and with any luck, would have picked up at least one assist. He’s doing a lot of little things smartly along the wall, playing well defensively, and setting up linemates for numerous scoring opportunities through four games. When you play with bottom-line players, you often get bottom-line production, so don’t expect a wealth of points from Slaf until he is deemed ready to play in a top-six role.
Here were some of the smart plays Slafkovsky made in the first period alone last night:
He is learning where to go without the puck in the offensive zone, and that is one of the toughest lessons to learn for rookie forwards. Teammates need to start spotting him when he’s in those scoring areas too, though. Slaf is very good at protecting the puck when he gets it, so as time goes on, you will see linemates getting him the puck in space, and him making lots of smart plays to create offence.
The most obvious example of when he should have been fed the puck was on this play:
The points will come – the main thing is that he is getting chances, and has been in the right position to score more often than he was early on in the preseason. He’s learning on the job, and look for him to be a lot more comfortable by the end of this season.
This team is better than folks think. Do not be surprised if they are still in the playoff race well into 2023, which makes the responses to this tweet all the more interesting:
Many Habs fans think that the club should turn around and deal Monahan at the trade deadline but if he keeps on playing like he has and the club stays in contention, why would the Canadiens even consider that?
Now is the time to approach him about signing an extension. Coming off of three injury-plagued seasons and having very modest numbers, his agent can’t demand a huge contract at this time. The Canadiens showed faith in trading for him, and can only amplify that faith by telling him that they not only want him for now but in the future as well. I can see Monahan being very receptive to signing a two- or three-year extension at a very reasonable price right now.
There is a great young core on the Canadiens but all young cores need to be supported and mentored by veterans. Monahan wore a letter in Calgary from a young age and has a well-earned reputation for being great in the dressing room. He is great on draws, can play ample time on both the power play and penalty kill, and help a team win games. The Canadiens are a lot closer to contending than many realize. This club may only be a year or two away, and Monahan will still be in his 20s. If any of the veteran centers is to be traded at the deadline, Dvorak would be the most likely
Montreal’s next three games are at home against Arizona, Dallas and Minnesota. Those are three winnable games, and if the club can come away with at least four points, this early-season momentum could do wonders for the club’s psyche. Keep it rolling, keep the crowd engaged, and fool all of the critics. It’s not out of the question, and that only heightens the early-season excitement.
Tank hard for Bedard? Nah! Win for Cam Allen.
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