The Montreal Canadiens showed up in Chicago on a Sunday night in a time of great upheaval for a team that has recently won three Stanley Cups, but now can’t compete on most nights.
The Blackhawks are suddenly among the worst teams in the entire league, and they’re going through their most difficult time right now with six straight losses. The task at hand for the Habs was to get the job done that was expected of them.
It was another night of sublime passes from Jesperi Kotkaniemi.
His vision is already the best on the Habs and he is only 18 years of age. Fans can take heart, too, that vision is not something you lose. When you have this level of hockey sense, it is not leaving you.
Kotkaniemi is going to be one excellent pro. He has the classic centre’s form as he moves up ice on the rush, then distributing to his wingers with perfect timing. This was the first night that he truly reminded one of NHL great Bobby Smith moving up the middle of the sheet with a long, lumbering stride.
Here’s the issue, though: he needs to start playing on the second line. You can easily see how, when he gets some talented mates, he sets them up and has chemistry with them. Philip Danault is doing an excellent job on the defensive side of the puck as a Habs centre. You can’t argue that the Habs second line with Danault, Tomas Tatar and Brendan Gallagher is excellent at driving the play, and you can’t argue that Danault has two goals this season as a second-line centre and is on pace for five goals, either. This does not work.
The worry from head coach Claude Julien, of course, is that Kotkaniemi can not handle the defensive responsibilities of being the second line centre. This would be true if the wingers on this second line were defensively irresponsible, but they are not. They’re good wingers and Kotkaniemi can work with them without issue. Danault, then, with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen, would also be a strong line handling the defensive responsibilities beautifully. Lehkonen is an outstanding defensive forward.
This seems like something that has to be coming soon. It is impossible to wrap your head around a head coach choosing to have a second-line centre with two goals on the season pro-rating to five goals. This is not a winning hockey formula since the beginning days of the sport.
The way that Shea Weber has solidified the defence is simply remarkable. He is just one player, but he improves the other five players, if not the other 19 players. Weber’s presence helps the other defenders in a trickle-down way, as they all have roles that they can handle instead of too many minutes instead of too talented players. Weber’s presence makes a huge difference to Carey Price, who has a defender finally who can clear the crease out so he isn’t inundated with bodies around him all the time. Weber’s 25 minutes a night also makes the forwards better, as he gives them the confidence to know that they can clear the zone and look for a head man pass when Weber takes control of the puck in his own zone.
Certainly this is still a work in progress still and the Habs need a more talented left side defender to play with Weber, but when you consider what the defence looked like only two weeks ago compared to now, it is simply amazing to see what one player can do to help 19 other players be better.
It’s not just that accurate rocket shot that everyone already knows about, it’s everything he does on the ice as a talented player, and everything he does off the ice as a talented captain settling down his teammates and leading by example. So many people thought that Weber was done because he needed surgery, but Weber is showing instead that he is the type of player who can go deep into his 30s. He doesn’t rely on speed that could leave him. He relies on smarts that he will continue to have. He relies on strength that he will continue to have. He will rely on that shot that he will continue to have.
Don’t expect Weber to falter. He’s in for the long haul as Habs captain. Now get him a left-handed partner and he will look even better than he already does.
A moment in the third period stood out as the Hawks were on a four minute power play and it appeared a sure goal was going to be scored. Paul Byron, however, worked so hard to get back into the play and managed to stop one of the great snipers in the game, Patrick Kane, from scoring on a clean look. In the end, Kane didn’t even get a shot away when Price was beaten. That was a certain goal and Byron’s hustle saved it. A terrific defensive moment that doesn’t show up on a scoresheet but few players can achieve. It’s Byron’s speed that got him there and his fortitude got the job done upon his arrival.
Carey Price, however, was the story of the night. It was a theft. He stole it.
The shots on goal favoured the Hawks by a wide margin of 39-28 and Price let in only two goals. The shots were of a very high quality, as well, with the Hawks on the power play almost a full period of the hockey game. Price said that he had to get his head back in the game when he was playing poorly in October. He has done it. Price is playing essentially all of the games and he is getting it done. Of fans and media alike, some of them tend to place a target on Price’s chest because of an expectation that he is supposed to be superhuman, but this is not possible. All you can ask from him is a night like this — a night where he puts the team on his shoulders and almost single-handedly then puts two points in the bank for the rest of his mates.
These two points are Price’s.
It was another night in which there were no single player goats, but you could certainly point out the discipline overall of the club. They allowed eight Chicago power plays in the contest, including five power plays in the third period alone. They allowed one power play goal, so credit to the penalty killers, but also more discipline is going to be needed. In fact, Tomas Tatar had three penalties himself, but he found redemption with the winning goal on the tip in from a Jeff Petry shot.
It’s easy to say the Nicolas Deslauriers hit was outstanding on Jonathan Toews, but the truth is the Hawks were asleep at the time and not in a very competitive mood, and the hit woke up the Hawks. That’s not on Deslauriers for doing a dumb thing as it was not a dumb thing to do, but the result sure hurt the Habs.
Toews woke up. Kane woke up. The Hawks got angry about the way they were playing and then played considerably better after the hit.
Yes, of course, a player should always level a hit when he has the opportunity to do that, but no, it did not help the Habs in this game. On the contrary: the Hawks decided they cared a little bit right after their captain and leader got slammed.
A strong weekend again for the top prospects in the Habs organization. Ryan Poehling with two assists in two games for Saint Cloud State as the second ranked NCAA team in the union won both of their contests. Poehling continues his point-per-game pace. Nick Suzuki also had a big weekend for Owen Sound as the attack won their biggest game of the year. They stopped the London Knights’ 15-game winning streak with a 5-1 win. Suzuki continued to roll with two assists in the encounter while Josh Brook continues to score at a torrid pace for a defenceman in the Western Hockey League. The Moose Jaw Warriors split their weekend games, but Brook collected in another two assists in the two games.
A big time is coming up for all three as they are expected to play for the USA and Canada at the upcoming World Junior Championships.
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