The Montreal Canadiens were back at home to face the Buffalo Sabres Thursday night. It’s early in the season, but it could be that only one of the Sabres or Habs will make the playoffs fighting for the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference as a wild card.
Most believe that Tampa Bay, Toronto and Boston will take the top three spots. So far, with what we have seen this season, there is no reason to believe otherwise.
The Habs have surprised but they need to keep surprising, especially against a Sabres team that is right with them in the standings as we hit the quarter mark in the season.
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A breakout season happens more often in the fourth season than any other season for an NHL player. If you are thinking that your first-round draft choice has finished developing after three seasons, then think again. Don’t give up on that player until he has finished his fourth season at least. In season one, Max Domi was a strong player and showed the promise that made him a first round draft choice and star for Canada at the World Junior championships. In seasons two and three, he struggled. In fact, in season three he scored on a goalie only five times. So what did GM Marc Bergevin know that mostly everyone else did not when he traded Alex Galchenyuk, drafted third overall, for Domi?
He answered that Domi drives the play and Habs fans are going love his engine. He could have also answered that you shouldn’t think that a player has shown you everything after three seasons. In fact, Domi started to score at a point-per-game pace in the last third season three last year. In his last 36 games, he has 37 points combining Arizona and Montreal. Domi continues to be an absolute star in a Habs uniform. He leads the team with nine goals and 11 assists for 19 points in 16 games. That puts him top 10 in the NHL in scoring early in this season. The last time the Habs had a point-per-game player for an entire season was Alex Kovalev in 2007-2008 with 84 points in 82 games. Last season, Brendan Gallagher led the team with 54 points. Domi should eclipse that by Saturday. Domi’s pass to Jonathan Drouin was absolutely perfect on their two-on-one to tie it at one. The pass to Tomas Tatar on the fourth goal was perfect. He’s just doing everything right. Have the Montreal Canadiens found their number one centre? Domi plays better at centre than the wing. He’s a puck handler. He’s a passer. He’s a zone entry player. He drives the play. The man is a natural centre in every way. How did the Coyotes not see this? Bergevin did.
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Domi is bringing Drouin out of his painful 2017-18 with a much better start points wise this season. Drouin with a goal and a helper for 12 points in 16 games. That’s a significantly better total pro-rated than any season in his career. His best is 53 and he is on pace right now to get 62 points this year. Now if he can just play tighter defensively so he isn’t having minus four nights like the debacle at Madison Square Garden. Drouin’s celebration for his first period marker showed the care, and showed that he wanted to recover from that bad night quickly.
The first line of Domi and Drouin had Andrew Shaw on it for the first time this season. It’s been a tough year for Shaw, who is looking very suspect and not contributing on the fourth line. Shaw got a chance to play with some talent and he showed that he belonged. It’s a big moment this season for the Habs potentially. They need Shaw to be a part of this. He can implicate himself well along the wall and win pucks for Domi and Drouin. He is fundamentally the right complement for these two who drive the play in the middle of the ice and are known for shooting and passing. Someone has to go get it for them and Shaw fits that role. His challenge is to keep contributing every game and to stay healthy, which has been his biggest challenge since coming to Montreal.
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Many offensive stars to speak of after this game. Nicolas Deslauriers played his first strong game of the season. He was already skating miles and driving the play before he scored the huge shorthanded goal. It was his first goal of the season.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi didn’t find the scoresheet but he brought the fans to their feet again with moves that not too many players can do at the NHL level. Kotkaniemi with a great toe drag to win space and then fire a shot. Kotkaniemi could use more power play time, but that has to be down the road for now. He is actually needed on this team that is competing very well early this season. While Domi shines and Danault does yeoman’s work defensively down the middle, they need Kotkaniemi to eat minutes — even if he isn’t always ready for the intensity of this hockey night after night.
The Habs had a lengthy five-on-three power play in the first period, and they didn’t muster an outstanding shot in it. They worked the puck around for a clear look for 35 seconds and when it was done the open man was Jeff Petry who fired a shot that couldn’t have been more than 45 miles per hour. The obvious issue for the Habs on their power play is they don’t have a shot from the point, so defenders can key down low. It’s easy to see how if Shea Weber were firing it at over 100 miles per hour instead of 45, then the Habs could have easily been on the board first, instead of Buffalo. To show how much they’re holding the stick too tight, they had a five-on-three power play again in the third period. This time they created well and could have scored three times if it were at equal strength. It’s going to be extremely interesting to see the power play numbers pre-Weber and post-Weber. He should improve it considerably.
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A difficult first period for Victor Mete. On the first goal he was the lone defender back and it was a two-on-one, but he didn’t play it right in the slightest. The rule for defenders is quite simple: take away the pass and allow the goalie to take the shooter. Mete was caught in the middle giving up both the shot and the pass. The Sabres took the pass option for an easy goal. On the second goal, Mete and his partner Xavier Ouellet were again caught, but this time it was backing up way too much on a simple rush. The Habs had a ton of manpower there to defend. While all five Habs skaters were around the zone on the rush, Ouellet and Mete gave up the blue line far too easily. Mete was again caught guarding no one with the Sabres having two players alone to whack at it until Price was beaten.
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The entire collective of defensemen are starting to struggle for the Habs. This defence was atrocious last year, and if they rely on some of the players of last year too much, they are going to find the same problems. The problem is obviously talent. The Habs do not have a first pair man on the ice for the first quarter of this season. Shea Weber will be back in mid-December or sooner, and he has to stabilize the blue line by playing the hard minutes. You simply can not ask Jordie Benn to be a first-pair defender night after night. Petry is playing too much as well and as a result he is wearing down rapidly. You see often in the past week that Petry is standing in front of the net when the opposition is scoring and he is not taking a man. Taking a man takes a lot of energy and Petry is suffering from too many minutes. When Weber returns, it is hoped that he can make his partner Mike Reilly look like a first-pair defenceman too. This is a long shot. Reilly is a one-two, but this is all the Canadiens have right now. It’s a thin blue line for the Habs and they’ve been winning with some outstanding coaching basically to ensure that with an aggressive forecheck most of the game is not played in their own end. It’s a great idea, but it can’t stop zone entries entirely.
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Carey Price. It didn’t turn around for Price in this game either. Absolutely no help for him on so many occasions, but the save percentage is the save percentage and it’s not good at all. Price has to figure out how to help this cause because the club is scoring enough. In fact, they are scoring more than anyone could have predicted. One of the only holes so far honestly is the player who is expected to be the sure thing.
There is a tremendous amount of consternation surrounding Price. Sadly for Habs fans and the GM who signed him to an eight-year contract, there should be at the moment. Don’t be interested in the “he is not making the big save” crowd. They’re just angry and nervous. Don’t be interested in the “he has to have the best save percentage because he makes the most” crowd. That is simply not how this works. You get paid for your years of service. If you want to just always trade a player away as soon as he becomes an unrestricted free agent, then that’s an entirely different hockey team-building strategy and a different discussion for another day. What you need to be interested in are the simple statistics and only the statistics. Here is where all discussions should start and end: at the cold hard facts of the matter and those facts are completely not supportive of Price — but the sample size is small, so those facts can still change rapidly.
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There could easily be a long discussion about the more complex analytics with high-danger chances and the heat map shot location. Those numbers are not supportive of Price in any way. But let’s keep this simple and look at the basic number that matters and tells an accurate story: it’s save percentage — and it’s bad. It’s very bad. Price was at .901 this season before the game against the Sabres and with a difficult game allowing six goals on 31 shots, Price now has a save percentage of .892. Now, that is not worth noting if every goalie is struggling because of the equipment changes. However, Price is among the worst in the league in save percentage. Price is 35th in the NHL. He had a poor season last year as well. In fact, Antti Niemi was clearly the better goalie for the Habs last season. Price has been a world-class goalie for a long time — the best save percentage for the last five years – but one can not ignore last year and this season so far either. The positive is these tough spells don’t tend to last for Price but it is time for this one to end.
The Habs have lost two forwards for an extended period. The Paul Byron injury is more serious than first thought. Head coach Claude Julien said Byron is now listed as week to week. Also, the MRI is back on the injury suffered in New York City on Tuesday night and he has a knee injury that will keep him out for six to eight weeks. The Habs also said that Noah Juulsen has been playing with a nagging injury, which may explain his poorer play after an outstanding start. The head coach rested him as a result and brought in Karl Alzner. It was Kenny Agostino who dressed in the spot of Armia. Tomas Plekanec has also been out with a bad back. Despite all of this, Nikita Scherbak remains in Laval purgatory though he must be brought back soon from his conditioning stint or he will have to be put on waivers. Clearly, he will get a chance to play before long.