The Habs survived a 45-shot performance by Buffalo to squeak out a 3-2 win last night, led ably by the stellar netminding of Carey Price, the vision and skill of Jonathan Drouin, the sniping ability of Max Pacioretty and steady defence/big minutes from Shea Weber and Karl Alzner.
That lead paragraph will be saved because there’s a good chance it will be copied and pasted more than a few times this season.
This is the type of win Bergevin and his management team envisioned when piecing this team together this summer, and perhaps the most encouraging sign from the victory was the defensive performances from the youthful newcomers on the club.
Jonathan Drouin collected his first of what promises to be many assists when he fed linemate Pacioretty for a one-timer to open the Habs’ season in the goal-scoring department, and that was quite appropriate as we may be expected to see that combination clicking another 25-30 times before the season is over.
Where Drouin really excels is on the power play, and it was apparent from his first shift on the man advantage that he will be replacing Andrei Markov as the Habs’ quarterback this season. Drouin has the puck skills to drive possession in the offensive zone until he spots the best passing option, and with his vision and ability to pass the puck in a multitude of different ways – including forehands, backhands, saucer passes and spinaramas – Drouin isn’t turning the puck over to the other team very often.
None of this is a surprise to people who have watched Drouin for the past five years as he was a force with the man advantage in Halifax and last season with Tampa, so it was his play away from the puck that many were most interested in keeping an eye on last night, and so far so good.
Drouin kept good positioning in his own zone, including on a few shifts versus Eichel where he made sure he stayed between the talented center and his net, not allowing the burgeoning star to get any prime scoring opportunities.
As long as he stays engaged physically and skates back hard there shouldn’t be a lot of issues as Drouin possesses elite hockey smarts. He knows where to go and anticipates the play as well if not better than most NHLers. The 15 pounds of muscle he added also won’t hurt when it comes to down-low battles and physical play.
Rasmus Ristolainen lined him up for a big hit last night, and while it was apparent that Drouin got his bell rung slightly as he didn’t see him coming until the last second, it was the big Finnish defender who fell down after the hit. Drouin is a sturdy customer who won’t get pushed around thanks to his strong lower body and low center of gravity…he has a deep knee bend and utilizes his core well a la Sidney Crosby; the two former QMJHLers have similar body types.
Karl Alzner has already earned the respect of his coach, as he barely left the ice in the last three minutes of regulation time with the score tied 2-2. Alzner was paired with Jordie Benn, went off for 30 seconds, then was back on with Jeff Petry until the final ten seconds of the game, a strong indication that coach Claude Julien is going to rely on the steady defender to play in key situations when defending a lead or looking for a key point this season in a close game.
He ended the game having played more than 21 minutes, second-most on the Canadiens as he was double-shifted on a few occasions and played a key role on the penalty kill.
Alzner lacks flash and will not be spotted making a jaw-dropping rush or offensive-zone pass this season; his bread and butter is his play without the puck and his poise in his defensive zone when he does have to make a play.
His outlet dish is not likely to be a stretch pass that springs someone on a breakaway, but it’s also rarely a risky play that results in a costly turnover. Sometimes it’s just a five-foot chip pass to his defence partner. Invariably, it is the right play, and that will endear him to the coaching staff as we have already witnessed.
When you don’t notice Karl Alzner much…that’s a good thing – it means he’s doing his job. Lots have questioned Alzner’s salary as it’s widely presumed only players who put up good stats deserves remittance above the league average. If he helps the Canadiens win while playing 20+ minutes per night in a solid defensive role…he will have earned every penny even if he only gets 18 points. It’s the points in the standings, not the points on the scoresheet, that ultimately matter.
Another newcomer who made an impression with the coaching staff away from the puck was Jacob de la Rose in a fourth-line center role. The 22-year-old rotated at the center position with Tomas Plekanec and Phil Danault while a man short, almost earning as much ice time as he clearly has demonstrated to the coaching staff that he has the defensive-zone smarts at such a young age to already be relied upon to kill off penalties.
As is often the case at the pro level, you first have to earn the trust of your coach defensively, and de la Rose has already been able to do that judging by the key situations that he was found on the ice. The goals will come as he continues to find his confidence playing in the top league in the world. De la Rose has the awareness, speed, size and positioning to excel in a defensive role, and it looks like he’s here to stay as that will usually find you a spot in an NHL lineup.
Charles Hudon may not have found the scoresheet either last night but he also took care of business away from the puck, and that will keep him from riding the pine as the points will come for the talented winger.
Hudon’s defensive play has improved by leaps and bounds over the past two seasons at the pro level as he learns to adapt to the pace and speed of pro players.
He was a solid player in his own zone at the junior level, so it’s not a shock that he has been able to make the adaptation As is often the case with undersized players that lack elite speed there was an adjustment period, and Hudon looks ready to compete both ways on a nightly basis at the NHL level.
Victor Mete was the other new face who more than held his own in the defensive end on this night…showing the worried masses that he can indeed handle NHL size, speed and strength down low as he was one of the club’s steadier blueliners.
Mete did not have a perfect night and was caught a little out of position on a couple of occasions and one or two passes missed the mark, but this was a good test for the youngster as Buffalo spent a lot of time in the offensive zone, and he passed his first test.
Mete has still yet to make a major gaffe in a Montreal Canadiens uniform, and until that happens there is no use in even considering moving him from the top pairing, and especially not out of the lineup. While it’s hard to see him being sent back to London after nine games at this point…there will be some big tests coming up soon, including Saturday night versus the high-flying Capitals.
One might wonder how all of these newcomers managed to turn in strong defensive performance on a night where Price faced 45 shots. Surprisingly; there were some off nights from players that normally play a sounder defensive game, and that’s likely good news…as most of them are capable of tightening up their play as they’ve shown the ability to do so in the past.
It won’t always be pretty but a win is a win, and if the young players keep contributing as they did to start the season, it’s a positive sign for the club as it will need all hands on deck.