The Montreal Canadiens were having their worst losing streak of the season dropping five straight. They did capture two overtime points, but the confidence was low heading into their affair with the New York Rangers on Saturday night at the Bell Centre. It was low even though in Shea Weber’s first game back, the Habs outshot the Carolina Hurricanes 49-22. Something had to give, as you don’t long dominate that severely and not get rewarded with a win.
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“Washed up,” his critics said. “Done,” his critics said. “Those knees are finished,” they said. “Wrong,” Shea Weber said. What a first period for Weber against the Rangers. Early first, it’s the half-slap shot for his first goal in over a year. It was a half-snap shot from 45 feet, and Weber was actually shooting off his back foot skating backwards to receive the pass in the correct spot, and he still blew it past the goalie. Then the goal of goals with seven seconds left in the first: Weber lays out Mika Zibanejad so hard that you can see the pain on his face from Moose Jaw. Weber isn’t tired at all, so he goes from the back of the Habs net and joins the rush, and beats everyone for speed for 200 feet leading the rush. He gets the pass from Tomas Tatar, who is on his stomach when he makes it, then roofs a breakaway shot. It probably was the best individual effort of the season by a Habs player, and it was done by a guy who you wondered if he would even join the rush in this new NHL. No worries on that front, Weber seems quite ready to join the rush. Let’s take a moment to praise his hockey brain on the play. He knows that he can join this rush because the time is winding down in the period, and a counterattack is nearly impossible with seven seconds left. All brains. All brawn. All hockey player.And what did he bring to Brett Kulak’s game? Kulak is a third-pairing defenceman most of the time, fighting for his spot in the lineup for the Calgary Flames last season and the Habs this season. He was put with Weber for this game and he had one of the best first periods we’ve seen on the Habs left side in the last two seasons since Andrei Markov left. Kulak joined the rush beautifully at times. He made two outlet passes that were simply brilliant. He broke up a rush so effectively that the forward ended up in the corner eating the puck, having done absolutely nothing with it. We’ve seen this script before where a defenceman looks good on the left side for a short time, so the jury will be out for a while on what we saw against the Rangers. If Kulak can defend with Weber like this, the Habs will be a significantly better team. The possibility of stability on defence was in view for the first time since Markov announced he was leaving for the KHL.Tomas Tatar didn’t get a lot of praise for his work on the Habs’ vital second goal considering it was one of the best plays by a Habs defenceman in two years when Weber scored. However, what a remarkable play by Tatar. He’s been brought down, but he is Tatar, so he keeps on fighting. He’s won a penalty, but he still doesn’t quit. Tatar on his stomach manages to slide a hook pass to Weber who is streaking toward the goal. Beautiful hockey.
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It was the best game for Jesperi Kotkaniemi in a while. He had been looking a little fatigued recently. He had terrific energy in this one. Kotkaniemi also benefitted from a little power-play time and the return of Paul Byron, who ignited the line much better than it had for a month since his lower body injury.
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It was also the best game for Artturi Lehkonen in a long time. He has been struggling at two goals but took advantage of this wide open evening to double his goal total. Lehkonen had two well placed shots and the relief was obvious. Remarkable what can happen if three players who are communicating well, have confidence and are, of course, all talented. That can make such a remarkable difference to a line and an entire hockey team.
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Jonathan Drouin was flying in this one. Drouin was hunting the puck. He was skating with it with great confidence holding until he saw a play that worked for him. On the Habs’ first goal, Drouin made a beautiful pass to Weber who was free. The top line has slowed down recently, but Max Domi averages better than a point-per-game with 27 in 26 played. Drouin is still second on the team in points with 21 in 26 games. His best season is 53 points. He is on pace for 66 points. Domi’s best season was his rookie campaign with 52 points. He is on pace for 85 points. You get two surprises like that offensively and that’s why you’re not in 28th place as experts predicted, but challenging for a playoff spot. In fact, the Habs had 71 points last year. They’re on pace for 92 points this season. That would be right on the cusp of a playoff spot, but likely missing it. They’ll need to find 95 likely. It will be interesting.
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The Habs were having a close to flawless game until midway through the second period when the Rangers finally got on the board. It was a horrific play by Jeff Petry. The situation seemed under control, then a giveaway by Petry and the Rangers finally had some energy for the game. The momentum changed and the Rangers then started to take some of the game for the first time. It was up to the defence to bear down and make sure that the Rangers didn’t get a second one. Momentum is an unusual thing and it can change in a hurry when a team has lost five straight. Indeed, the Rangers scored a second goal before the middle frame was over and it suddenly turned into a nervous night for the Habs faithful.Jordie Benn seems to be under the impression that he is quicker than he actually is. There are times when Benn is stick handling as if he believes no one can catch him or strip him of the puck. Obviously, he is mistaken as he is extremely easy to strip. Late second, the game is already changing in a dangerous manner and Benn is fiddling around with it like it’s shinny hockey at the neighbourhood rink. He loses it clean. One pass later and the Rangers should have made it 4-3. It’s hard to figure out why Benn is treated like he is Bobby Orr. He gets first-pairing minutes. He never gets sidelined from the starting 20. He plays the last shift of the game with a one-goal lead. What they see in Benn is a mystery. What they see in David Schlemko is a mystery. They are third-pairing defencemen on a weak team. They are in the press box on a strong team. If Victor Mete makes a mistake that egregious, he’d book a ticket to Laval immediately.
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Here’s the bottom line: The general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, Marc Bergevin, chose Nicolas Deslauriers over Nikita Scherbak. If I am head scout Trevor Timmins, I might be looking for a new job as a general manager somewhere else because another one of his high draft picks was given up on in a premature fashion and dumped, instead of a journeyman winger. If there is nothing under the surface that we do not know of in terms of extra-curricular activities by Scherbak, then this is a ridiculously stupid hockey decision. Deslauriers will never be more than a bit player on an average hockey team. On a good hockey team he isn’t even in the league at all. His time is already past him, if he ever truly even had a time. Scherbak is a 22-year-old, former first-rounder who had 30 points in 26 games in Laval last season and was close to the best player in that league. Deslauriers is a 27-year-old journeyman, who has one goal this year despite 19 games of regular ice time. His trademark this year is he is behind the play. It was pointed out as a so-called positive that Deslauriers finishes his checks. This is not a good thing: when you arrive late, this is the only thing that you can do when the puck is already up ice and you are behind the play. However, the general manager gave him a contract last season when he caught lightning in a bottle that he is surely not going to ever going to catch again. It was Bergevin who signed the deal for Deslauriers and he doesn’t want to look stupid about that contract on the same week that he had to send Karl Alzner through to the minors in another stupid deal that he signed. He instead chose to send through waivers the highest points-per-game player in the American Hockey League last season, Scherbak. Now there is no guarantee that the best player in the AHL becomes a bona fide NHLer – there are many strong AHL players that don’t have the NHL in them. But you put your money down on the best players in one league to advance to the next league. That is just common sense. That best player Scherbak, Bergevin isn’t invested in though. Timmins is the one invested in that player. The lousy player Deslauriers that they kept, Bergevin is invested in and Timmins is not. This decision has three reasons for it and only two make some sense: Firstly, Scherbak might have an off-ice issue that we don’t know about. Secondly, the general manager didn’t want to swallow his pride and send Deslauriers down instead. Thirdly, the Habs evaluators of talent think Deslauriers is more talented than Scherbak. The first reason is the most likely; the second reason is possible; the third reason is laughable. Scherbak must have something going on off-ice because the reason that Bergevin didn’t want to swallow his pride is professionally irresponsible, and the final reason that Deslauriers is a better asset is just so stupid in terms of hockey evaluation, it simply is not possible. At the end of the day, it doesn’t even matter the reason behind why this decision is being made. What matters instead is that the Habs had a first-round draft choice and then managed to devalue him so badly that they got nothing for the best player points-per-game in the AHL last season. If this is purely a hockey decision, and I am Timmins, I am sending out by CV to get a GM job.
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Mike McCarron has struggled to get his groove this season. McCarron is putting in the work, but so far work has not given him the breakthrough he desires. This off-season he took skating lessons but it has not made a difference. Saturday afternoon, McCarron had his best game in a long time. The giant Habs centre managed four assists in a loss for the Rocket in Laval against Utica. Everyone has written off McCarron, and admittedly it is a longshot now, but he isn’t so old that it is over for him. The key for McCarron is not what most fans believe. It is not skating that is stopping him from being an NHLer. It is that he cannot get implicated in the play because he cannot win puck battles. He is separated from the puck by small players all of the time and then is left behind the play. McCarron needs to not work on skating, but work on one-on-one battles. He must learn how to use angles and his weight correctly to win the puck. He doesn’t have the stationary balance to win corner battles when with his strength, reach and size, he should win them all. He needs to watch and learn from Lars Eller, who is one of the best at it. There are a number of tricks to winning puck battles. If McCarron can just get better at that aspect of the game, he can implicate himself every shift instead of skating to the puck and never leaving the play with it.42-22 were the shots on goal for the Habs in this one. That follows a 49-22 shots on goal over the Hurricanes. Shots on goal are not the greatest stat as we know, but those are impressive numbers, and portend to a future better than a five-game losing streak happening again any time soon.
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