It was a game in which neither team had anything to gain or lose. It turned out to be something very special.
Two weeks from his last college game, 2017 first round draft choice Ryan Poehling played not only his first NHL game, but his first game as a professional.
It was something to behold.
With the Canadiens trailing 2-0 midway through the first period, Poehling fearlessly drove to the crease and somehow managed to force a pass-out from Jordan Weal past Frederik Andersen. It was challenged of course. That’s what the analy-retentive Mike Babcock would do in a ‘nothing’ game. Overruled! First NHL goal on his first pro shot on goal. As you might imagine, it brought the Bell Centre house down.
Second period, Poehling again. This time he pounced on a cross-bar rebound to score into the open side. That was a goalscorer-style goal; quick and surgical. Two goals on two shots. The last Canadiens rookie to score two goals in his NHL debut was John Ferguson in 1963. It tied the game 2-2.
Third period, Toronto in a 5-4 lead. Arturri Lehkonen breaks loose on a two-on-one with Poehling. Perfect pass and a rifled shot over Andersen’s glove. Tie game and the Bell Centre erupted again and the hats rained down. A hat trick debut. Could we ask for more?
Well, the fans got more. The shootout tied 1-1 after three rounds, with Domi, Gallagher or Shaw still available, Claude Julien sent out Poehling for the Canadiens fourth shot. Calm as could be he snapped the shootout game-winner high over Andersen’s glove.
Poehling scored three goals on only three shots on goal and then added the shootout winner. His total ice time in his first NHL game was 10:47.
A Hollywood scriptwriter couldn’t have painted a better picture.
Charlie Lindgren also started his first game. I’m hard-put to get a handle on his performance. Toronto’s two opening goals were flukes; the first off Shea Weber’s skate and then a high floater on a screen to make it 2-0. On Toronto’s third goals Lindregren got tangled up and was slow across on the Nylander wraparound. On the fourth Toronto goal, Jeff Petry flat-out went to sleep on Kasperi Kapanen.
But Lindgren also stood tall on three second period breakaways. He also stopped Kapanen with his facemask on Toronto’s final shootout attempt.
But, along the way I never had the sense that Lindgren wasn’t totally in control of the game. We’re so used to the way Carey Price plays that it’s perhaps unfair to be critical of lesser beings. And it has to be said, that, after giving up that opening goal to Auston Matthews he stopped Marner, Tavares and Kapanen in that shootout.
Next year, Lindgren will be Price’s backup. If we can get twelve wins out of him in twenty starts or so, everyone will be happy.
It was hardly a masterpiece of disciplined hockey but it was certainly a lot of fun.
There were no brownie points given for defense. Shots only goals were 49-49. The 98 total shots is a record in a Canadiens game, breaking the old mark of 96 set at Anaheim in October 2017. (The Canadiens lost that game 6-2). All tolled there were 157 shooting attempts. The Canadiens defence blocked 21. Shea Weber led the Canadiens with eight shots; Andrew Shaw had six.
ALSO WORTH MENTIONING
….It’s apples and oranges but, the Canadiens 96 points put them ahead of Vegas and Dallas (93 points) and Colorado (90) all of whom made the Western Conference playoffs.
…..Three of Poehling’s brothers – two of whom he was played with at St. Cloud State this season, were at the game for his NHL debut, along with his parents. Poehling was the first player in the so-called modern-era to score a hat trick in his first NHL game since Alex Smart 76 years ago (1943). (Smart’s entire NHL career lasted eight games).
…..Poehling came to the Canadiens with a well established college reputation for being responsible defensively. For anyone playing close attention, it was a strong point in his game against the Leafs and something that might stand him well when he tries to make the team out of training camp in September. His fearlessness in front of the net won’t hurt him either. While not a career-breaker, the jury is still out on his skating which is better than average but seems sometimes awkward. His coaches can take care of that Along with his five-on-five work, Julien also used him as part of the PK unit during the game’s only Toronto advantage.
…..Jordan Weal again made a strong case for an off-season Canadiens contract. He was the one who dug the puck out to set up Poehling for his first NHL goal. And he finished off a tic-tac-toe power play with his 8th goal of the season and his 4th in sixteen games with the Canadiens.
….Honorable mention could be made of the play of Max Domi in this game. Same for Joel Armia. Loosened from the shackles of his defensive responsibilities, Armia showed some pretty impressive stickhandling skills especially in the first period.
….The Canadiens finish the season with 96 points, the third largest one season improvement in the history of the team – 25 points. They gained 33 points between the 1943 and ’44 seasons and 35 points between 1925 and ’26. Their win total went from 25 last season to 44.
….The end of a perfect night would have been seeing Victor Mete end his career goal scoring drought. He had a breakaway in the overtime but Andersen stopped him. He will go into next season with zero goals in 120 career games, the longest active goal-less streak in the entire league.
….Jonathan Drouin was nothing to write home about, but he did draw an assist on the power play goal and he showed his skill by scoring the Canadiens first goal in the shootout. Beside that, only two shots on goal.
….:Paul Byron sat the game out. Wrist injury. He hasn’t been himself recently. Apparently the injury has hampered him for about a month.
….The Canadiens lost 160 man-games due to injury/illness this season. Last year that figure was 377 which partially accounts for their dreadful season and the Canadiens improve.
A SUBJECTIVE VIEW OF THE SEASON PAST
Canadiens leading scorer – Max Domi – 72 points in 82 games (28-44) career highs. (His previous best was 52 points and 18 goals three years ago)
Top goalscorer – Brendan Gallagher (33) career high.
Most Valuable Player – Carey Price – despite a November slump he carried the Canadiens down the stretch. Won the Molson Cup.
Rookie of the Year – Jesperi Kotkaniemi – and not just because he was the only rookie on the team.
Best Defensive Forward – Phillip Danault. He really reminded me of Guy Carbonneau as he was coming into his own this season. . Played against the league’s best centres and finished the year even in plus-minus.
Best Defenceman – I’ll take Jeff Petry over Shea Weber. Petry carried the defence until Weber came back in December and it was Petry who shored things up when Weber’s play noticeably sagged in those games in early March.
Biggest Surprise – It would be easy to say Domi but I’ll take Tomas Tatar. He was literally a throw-in as part of the Pacioretty trade (Vegas even had to absorb some of his contract) He came to the Canadiens with the reputation of being inconsistent. Turns out he was as reliable as….well Brendan Gallagher. Career highs of 28 goals and 55 points are nothing to sneeze at.
Biggest Disappointment– Jonathan Drouin and it isn’t even close. ( distant second was the Canadiens power play). As we’ve been saying here since February, if Drouin had come anywhere close to bringing his energy and intensity even close to the level of his innate skills the Canadiens wouldn’t have had to battle down the stretch the way they did.
Most Improved Player – Among the returnees I would have to go with Jordie Benn. Once Weber returned the Canadiens were able to slot him in an area where he could succeed. As a third pairing guy his game took off. (Could also mention the major steps taken by Brett Kulak after he arrived from Calgary, but he wasn’t with the team last year.)
Comeback of the Year – Price or Weber could be mentioned here, but I’ll take Andrew Shaw. Returning from last season’s serious concussion issues he scored his 19th goal Saturday night in his 63rd game.
Overachiever of the year. – Brendan Gallagher. Who else?
Have a nice summer. See you in September.