Thursday night against Anaheim was a lame-duck game in what has been pretty much a lame-duck season. Shea Weber joined Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron on the injury list and more than a few members of the Canadiens struggled with a flu virus. Somehow the Canadiens prevailed.
The Canadiens now have a two-game winning streak and have won eight of their last 11 which gives hope to the ‘cup half-full’ crowd of the fan base. And to their credit, it should be pointed out that following their recent eight game losing streak it was mentioned that the Canadiens would have to play over .700 percentage hockey the rest of the season in order to come close to landing a playoff berth. Taking sixteen of the last twenty-two possible points is .722 hockey.
At the moment the best chance for a playoff berth lies is finishing third in the Atlantic Division currently held by the Florida Panthers. A look at the morning’s standings will show the Canadiens three points behind them. In my role as the party Grinch, I am forced to mention that Florida has those three games in hand and point out that in their last two games the Canadiens were forced into overtime against two of the league’s worst teams. Still as they say, where there’s hope……
The Canadiens’ next four games include Toronto and Arizona at home followed by games in Boston and Pittsburgh. If the Canadiens can win three of those four games I might be inclined to shed my ‘Grinch’ persona for that of a ‘cockeyed optimist’.
It might be time to simply reserve a place in our regular game posting called “What Suzuki Did”. We do it on almost a nightly basis anyway.
Suzuki scored the game’s first goal on a power play. It wasn’t a particularly great goal. He let a good wrist shot goal with Gallagher operating as a screen in front of the Anaheim goal. It was some of other work that was spectacular. There was a rush down the right boards and then a cut to the middle past defenseman Hampus Lindholm for a major scoring chance and then he nearly put the rebound in. Also he outsmarted a defender to come out of the corner for another grade-A opportunity. And he sweetly set up Ben Chiarot for another great chance. All of this in the second period alone.
Claude Julien started Suzuki on the opening (and only) shift of the overtime. What does that tell you?
Suzuki now has eleven goals. He has seven points his last six games. His late season surge has inserted right in the middle of nomination talk for the Calder Trophy. He’s not going to win it. That is pretty much reserved for a couple of defensemen, Vancouver’s Quinn Hughes or Colorado’s Cale Makar.
The Canadiens starters for the overtime were Nick Suzuki, Joel Armia and Jeff Petry. In the absence of Shea Weber, Petry had been forced to carry a heavy load. That opening overtime shift was his 26th of the game, most of which were over one minute each (1:07) average. He wasn’t perfect. Anyone who plays 27 minutes is bound to make a mistake. His major one came with 1:45 remaining a tie game, but Carey Price bailed him out. He made up for that with his speed and outstanding shot for the game winner 25 seconds into the overtime.
It might be an illusion or he simply might be overshadowed by Weber’s presence on most nights, but Petry’s game seems to rise when Weber is not in the lineup. Probably only a mirage. It just it seems like it to me.
Carey Price had to deal with only four high danger scoring chances in the game. That’s says something about the way the patchwork defense kept clear the area between the faceoff dots for much of the night. He gave up two goals, the first at the end of a 1:30 Anaheim shift inside the Canadiens blue line, the second when Christian Folin failed to block a shot while screening in front of him. With 1.45 left Price gave us another one of those highlight reel saves when he stacked his pads while falling to his right to stop Jakob Silfverberg with what could have been the game winning goal. Earlier there was his subtle brilliance on a second period breakaway when he showed the five-hole to Derek Grant and then took it away with the paddle of his stick.
Price faced 37 Anaheim shots. Since the eight game losing streak ended Price has won seven of his nine starts during which he has posted a .950 save percentage and a 1.65 goals-against average. Those are outstanding numbers. Probably too late in the season but outstanding nevertheless.
IT TOOK A WHILE
Since he was drafted Jake Evans has played four seasons of college hockey and almost two full seasons in Laval before finally playing in his first NHL game. Off what I saw against Anaheim, Evans is the first rookie Laval re-call in a couple of seasons who has a chance to have a useful and long lasting NH career.
After recording 30 points in his previous 31 AHL games, Claude Julien put Evans in a spot where he could succeed with linemates Max Domi and Ilya Kovalchuk. Four seconds into his first career NHL shift, a Domi tip pass sent him in alone on the Anaheim goal. It was one of his two major scoring chances in the game. He’s likely to wind up back in Laval before long, but his debut holds promise for training camp in September.
ALSO WORTH MENTIONING
….The domino effect of major injuries is players are forced into unaccustomed roles. Without Weber and with Victor Mete out of position on the right side, Ben Chiarot’s game turned tentative. He was charged with three giveaways in the game. As part of his 24:07 ice time, Julien was forced to give Chiarot 4:18 on the power play.
….Brendan Gallagher scored his 17th goal. Typical goal for him. He was knocked down along the boards was quickly up and back in front to get Kovalchuk’s pass. In games in which Gallagher scores the Canadiens have a 15-2-1 record.
….The assist on the Gallagher goal gave Kovalchuk 11 points in his 14 games with the Canadiens. Marc Bergevin has a big decision to make. Does he accept a third or fourth round draft pick for him at the deadline or try to re-sign him for next season.
….Not everything is perfect with Suzuki. He won only one of his ten faceoff attempts.
….But the Canadiens as a whole weren’t particularly good in that department at 46%. Domi won 10 of 13 but Danault only 7 of 16.
….Nate Thompson has played a role in the recent Canadiens surge. For the second game in a row his acceleration allowed him to beat the defense for a shot on goal. He didn’t score on this one but it’s an indicator of how he has found a recent second wind.
….That said, Julien shortened his bench through the last half of the game which meant the Thompson/Weise/Cousins line got only four shifts in the game’s final thirty minutes.
….It was a particularly rough night for Dale Weise. While he played his usual robust physical game he was charged with four giveaways.
A tough week ahead, one that could ultimately decide the fate of the Canadiens’ season. They host Toronto Saturday night. The Leafs are four points ahead of the Canadiens in the Atlantic Division with two games in hand and they have goaltending issues. The Canadiens they will play Arizona at the Bell Centre Monday followed by road games in Boston and Pittsburgh Wednesday and Friday before returning home for Dallas a week from Saturday. As mentioned earlier, the Canadiens need to find a way to take six of eight points from those games if they want to keep whatever remaining playoff hopes they entertain from fading away.