In our first look at Victor Mete of the season it looked like he was determined to make an impact early against the Canucks with a flurry or rushes in the first 10 minutes. He certainly had energy and a jump in his step, but the warts were still there as his ongoing problem with gap control reared its head on Vancouver’s first goal after an Alexander Romanov turnover left him defending an odd-man break. Adam Gaudette’s knuckleball shot shouldn’t have evaded Price, but it put the Canucks on the board after they had surrendered two early goals to Nick Suzuki and another shorthanded tally by Artturi Lehkonen.
Throughout the opening period, the Vancouver bakery was open for service with free turnovers for everyone. The Nick Suzuki line was particularly impressive, pouncing on the Canuck benevolence repeatedly. The spotty coverage continued after a quick-touch pass by Paul Byron found Jeff Petry with roughly 80 feet of open space to walk and snipe it high over Braden Holtby’s right shoulder to give the Habs a 3-1 lead after one.
As has been the pattern all year, the second period saw Montreal assert their dominance with three unanswered goals. The party started with Brendan Gallagher’s fourth of the year on a breakaway and was followed by Petry’s second of the night after a beautiful deke and dish by Corey Perry.
The period wrapped up with Tyler Toffoli finding the yawning cage on a quick power-play feed by Shea Weber. While the Toffoli goal may have appeared to be an easy one, it is a subtle demonstration of how the Habs have closed another important gap on the Leafs. One of Toronto’s prime advantages over opponents is the combination of slick hands and a readiness with their sticks in scoring areas, but Toffoli is an elite scorer who knows how to position his stick and be ready for the puck at all times. If this rubs off on his teammates, this team could be deadly.
As the third period began and Habs fans wondered which of their players was going to suffer an unpenalized blow to the head, it gave Claude Julien yet another opportunity to roll his lines and keep everyone’s minutes in check. The Habs effectively ran out the clock without taking any of the unnecessary chances that have led to the run of garbage time goals against. This has been a problem area and it was again tonight as Jay Beagle beat Kotkaniemi to the slot after Tyler Motte beat Mete to a puck behind the net and the slot feed was converted to make it 6-2.
One of the key measures I look for to determine how well the Habs are playing is the number of times they go back with the puck or pass D-to-D. Generally speaking, the lower the number, the better their game. As the season progresses and systems tighten up, the neutral zone will be more challenging to cross which usually requires more D-to-D passes to open up lanes, but quick puck movement often eliminates that need. The trouble Montreal has is that when they’re forced to use these tactics too often early in the game, their brains tend to auto-program to that setting for the rest of the game and the offensive push stalls. Tonight it was a north-south game for the most part, which is where Montreal excels.
What I liked:
Some shots hit the net, and look at that… Some shots went in!
The forecheck pressure Montreal put on the Canucks defence caused as many turnovers as you’ll ever see in an NHL game.
What I didn’t like:
There was a little too much respect given to the Canuck forwards at times with Montreal defenders backing in a bit to allow shots. The wingers have to be careful not to get caught flat-footed in no man’s land. An aggressive fronting of the points is extremely tough to deal with for defenders and a team with Montreal’s counter-attack speed should make that an effective strategy to employ.
Players that stood out for good reasons:
Artturi Lehkonen was the Energizer bunny tonight as is often the case, but this time he got rewarded with a couple points and a whole lot of battles won.
Jeff Petry, of course, stands out with another mult-point night and his usual balanced effort. Another player who doesn’t get enough credit so far is Joel Edmundson who keeps his plays simple and reads the play very well. In game one against Toronto he was having trouble figuring out which was the gas pedal and which was the brake, leaving some awkward gaps. Since then, he has provided deft support off the rush, winning almost every race to pucks that dropped (or checked) off his forward’s sticks. It’s an unheralded but eminently impactful part of the game as it leads to several minutes of extra possession and offensive zone time over the course of a game.
Players who stood out for the wrong reasons:
It is rarely for a lack of effort, but Jesperi Kotkaniemi didn’t have his strongest outing. If he wants to take the next step as an offensive player he simply needs to get the shot off his stick much quicker and find ways to avoid the shin pad right in front of him.
No one was bad on this night, but as the games pile up, it wouldn’t be the end of the world for young Romanov to observe a game or two from the press box. Depth and the ability to rest players is one of Montreal’s advantages and as his workload increases, a few more unforced errors are creeping into his game like east-west passes when the wall was open and failing to get shots past the forward covering the point. It’s a long learning curve as a defenceman in the NHL and much like time in the AHL never hurt any of them, neither did the odd game watching from the upstairs.
There was nothing about Mete’s game tonight that stood out as different from the Mete of yesteryear. He can wheel around the net with the best of them and looks as fluid as anyone accelerating through the neutral zone, but an ineffective shot and a tendency to give up his gaps too easily render him as nothing more than a depth defenceman. He is the perfect seventh defenceman for this club with his small contract and ability to step in with any partner at any time.
There will be some other interesting decisions coming up, barring injury as Joel Armia nears a return and Michael Frolik and Ryan Poehling get restless in the press box. There is no obvious player to come out of the lineup at this point, with Perry continuing to contribute, but the keen observers will note that his legs get stationary more than any of his teammates and he can’t always maintain the same pace as his teammates. The strategy going forward should be to get Perry some games off throughout the season, especially on back-to-backs.
As I was about to type that the Habs can’t expect all nights to be as easy as this one was for finding space in the offensive zone, I checked the schedule and saw Erik Gudbranson and Co. on tap later this week. This is a division that is more susceptible to the forecheck than any other, so the Habs would be well advised to keep that throttle down as much as possible. The shooting percentage will inevitably regress, so the effort can’t abate.