The string of vital games continued for the Montreal Canadiens on Tuesday night with a home date against the Florida Panthers.
The Panthers played a high-scoring affair in Toronto on Monday night, losing 7-5 to the Maple Leafs. The Habs were hoping that the Panthers didn’t have their skating legs while they were well rested from Sunday in Carolina, and in the end, Montreal defeated Florida handily, taking the game 6-1.
- The season has had so many ups and downs, so many highs and lows. Some days, the Habs looked like world-beaters and some days, they couldn’t beat an egg. But through the entire season, there was one constant: the line of Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher. The line played against the best the other team had to offer night after night, yet they amassed the best plus-minus numbers on the team. If the Habs make the playoffs, fans should thank mostly this line and the January-to-April portion of the season from Carey Price. How did the Vegas Golden Knights not see anything of redeeming value in Tatar last season, so much so that they made him a throw-in and a salary dump to get Max Pacioretty? It seems impossible, but there it is. He’s a Habs forward now and he was virtually free. The Golden Knights even picked up some of his salary. It’s a stunner. Tatar now has 25 goals on the season. His career high is 29 and he has 56 points on the season — that equals his career high. He’s only 28. He’s not going anywhere as the Habs build on a foundation whose most reliable players are the three who took over this game against Florida in the first period.
- How do you come back from the fourth-best record in the NHL to have a solid season on the verge of the playoffs? You have players with career seasons. Players like Max Domi, Tatar, Gallagher and, yes, points-wise Jonathan Drouin. Those players have gotten plenty of press. However, Jeff Petry has not. Petry’s assist on the Tatar goal gave him 43 points on the year. That’s one better than his career best. He set that last season. The Edmonton Oilers didn’t believe too strongly in Petry a long time ago. In fact, he was the whipping boy of the Oilers fans, much like Drouin is now — a subtle warning to life’s fickle nature that making Drouin feel horrible might not be the best idea. Petry’s chart continues to go from the bottom left to the top right. He is not perfect and he needs to not be over-taxed, but he is a four defenceman by rank and most likely a three. Whatever ranking you wish to attach to him, he’s had another outstanding season on a roster with a lot of players finding their better selves.
- Artturi Lehkonen, it looks like, is always going to go through some icy-cold streaks in his career scoring-wise. He had 19 in his first season and has been going lower since, with only 10 so far this year, but what has to be noted is all of the other aspects of his game that are top-notch. The coaching staff loves Lehkonen. He is always on the right side of the puck. He is always responsible. He is always making sure that even if he can’t score, he is not a liability. There is more to hockey than a goal. There is also making sure that you aren’t responsible for the goals against. Many games don’t require another goal in the third period. They require that your team does not allow one. So what if Lehkonen cannot pot a goal with a 5-3 lead with 10 minutes left? All he needs to do with 10 minutes left is make sure that it does not become 5-4. His 10 goals this season will likely be the lowest total of his career in goals. And while he finds himself at one end of the ice, take heart about how outstanding he is at the other end of the ice. Fans may not focus on this overall, but mark it in Sharpie that the coaches focus on it all the time — oh, and by the way, he’s one only shy of his career high in points in a season at 27.
- A lopsided win doesn’t seem like a night to wax on about the winning goalie, but Carey Price had to be good early when the Habs were reeling for the first 10 minutes after their teammate Paul Byron was knocked out. Price has been outstanding since his rough start to the season. Price had a save percentage hovering around .890 in early December. The Habs were only winning because the team was scoring at a remarkably high pace. Logic said that it could not continue, that they would need their goalie to find his form. He did when goaltender coach Stephane Waite showed Price some tapes of his best games from his MVP season. It worked. Whether it was tactical changes or simply a boost of confidence that made the difference, Price has turned his .890 into a .919 by putting in higher than .950 for a large portion of the second half of the season. You need a goalie. You can’t get this done without one. The players say the best goalie in hockey is Price. His detractors, who suffer from anger that he can’t also score when the team loses, will disagree, but they are wrong. Price has it in him to add a Stanley Cup to a full trophy case. He has the talent. He has the disposition. He has the strength of character. The GM only has to get him two or three more pieces, and he can lead everyone to glory.
- Many strong shifts in this one for the new fourth line of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Joel Armia and Drouin. It was Kotkaniemi in the first period who laid out a gorgeous pass to Brett Kulak to slap into the goal before James Reimer was even looking the right way. Then, in the second period, it was Drouin doing most of the work as the line hemmed the Panthers in their own zone for a minute of action. Kotkaniemi has been improving his strength and puck-battling capabilities as the season has gone on. He is figuring out how to use his blades and his angles to push off while protecting at the same time. Consternation seems to be ramping as he gets his ice time cut that he might not be utilized in his best fashion this season. On the contrary, he’s 18 years of age and he is learning everything he needs to and competing at the highest level. There’s no reason at all to fear anything. Certainly, the coach has shown his conservative roots not using him as much, and that’s not altogether unwise, despite Kotkaniemi’s outstanding Corsi. It’s to be expected that you have veterans that are wiser to the ways of the NHL as we hit the month of April. He’ll be fine.
- From nine goals to 27 goals in a season — that is one impressive breakout year for Max Domi. While Alex Galchenyuk is putting in a fairly solid season goals-wise but minus 21 on the Coyotes, Domi is the leading point-getter on a surprisingly good Habs team. He also plays centre for a team that desperately needed to get better up the middle. GM Marc Bergevin has made a lot of outstanding trades in his tenure, but this one could be the best. Danault lovers may argue, Tatar lovers may argue — they would have a case; those were also outstanding trades by Bergevin. Take your pick. The GM has made some strong moves. Ultimately, though, you are judged by your playoff appearances, and if Bergevin’s players don’t make the playoffs this year, his record for the post-season will not be very good. However, they are trending in the right direction with excellent prospects and a better team on the way.
- The idiocy of the hockey code wears the goat horns in this one. Paul Byron hit MacKenzie Weegar the last time these two teams met. It was a dirty hit where Byron left the ice so he got suspended three games. That was the NHL penalty for the infraction. Byron said he deserved it and did not contest it. The hockey code goes on to say though that Byron now must also answer for that hit with a fight. He said he would answer for it if challenged, and the much bigger Weegar didn’t waste any time as he went right to Byron on the first shift, at his first opportunity. The result of the fight was brutal. Byron, not a fighter, had no clue what he was doing. He suffered a shot with a direct left hand to his chin that buckled his legs and knocked him out. He boldly got up because of some stupid encouragement from the linesman who should not be playing doctor and leading him to the locker room. What Byron should be instructed to do is not move after the moments of being concussed. His brain is already swirling. He should be static, still, quiet — like he will be, in a dark room, after. Byron tried to make his way to the room, and his legs buckled again while the linesman held him up. Byron already took his NHL punishment. He already said he was sorry. So what’s the next step? That the Habs go after Weegar in response for Weegar going after Byron, and then the Panthers go after the Habs and so on and so on until another person needlessly adds an accumulative brain injury to their after-hockey life. The hockey code has to get out of the 1980s. Modern medicine continues. The thoughts of how these young men needlessly damage their brains must evolve as well. If you don’t believe me, ask the father of Steve Montador, ask the family of Derek Boogaard, ask the mother of Jeff Parker. Byron isn’t going to be added to this list because he is not a fighter, but these men were asked to constantly put their brains in danger. These men had to answer to the code. These men are dead.
- The biggest game of the season is Thursday night. They will not get bigger. There are three teams fighting for a playoff spot, and only two teams will earn those spots. It will either be the Habs, the Carolina Hurricanes or the Columbus Blue Jackets. The Habs and the Blue Jackets meet on Thursday in Ohio. The Blue Jackets have the tie-breaker at the end of the season with more regulation or overtime wins if the clubs end the season tied in points. Even if the Habs could take the game to overtime in Columbus but lose, it would be a more acceptable result. It’s going to come down to the wire, but if the Habs win Thursday, the sun would shine a lot brighter in the morning. The results on Tuesday were the Blue Jackets beating the New York Islanders and the Washington Capitals defeating the Hurricanes. The Habs have five games left in their season. The Hurricanes and the Blue Jackets have six games left. Carolina leads Montreal by one point. Montreal is up by two points on Columbus.
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