They may have been the 24th-ranked team out of 31 in the NHL and usually, that is far from good enough for exciting moments like this, but 2020 vision is anything but clear. So while most Montreal Canadiens fans are hoping for top prospect Alexis Lafreniere in the draft instead of Habs victories, in this of most unpredictable of years allow yourself to dream.
Not maybe for ultimate glory, but at least for some moments of joy for the players you cheer for with all of your heart. The foundation of future success is built with experience culled in the playoffs, whether you call it that or the “play-in” series.
It does not matter what is in a name. It matters that you are here and you are healthy, that you have a puck to follow, a beer to drink, a smile on your face, and arms ready to raise. Enjoy the day for it almost feels normal, and we all need a little of that.
And what a game we got in the opener as the Montreal Canadiens and Pittsburgh Penguins went to overtime before the Habs won 3-2.
It’s so difficult to know who as an 18-year-old is going to keep developing and who will stagnate soon after. The Vegas Golden Knights didn’t think that their mid-first rounder was going to keep getting better every season. They wanted Max Pacioretty and felt that Nick Suzuki moving on to Montreal wasn’t going to be something that they would regret. However, this young man is now 20, and he just keeps getting better, and though Pacioretty is outstanding this year for Vegas, it must be a bit scary for them to think what Suzuki could achieve long after Pacioretty’s game is declining.
Suzuki seemed to hit the wall in a long regular season when COVID-19 changed everything in mid-March. After the rest, he is back and better than ever. Suzuki was the best Canadiens forward on the night. He absolutely sniped a shot into the top corner for the Canadiens 2-0 goal. It was a 2-on-1 and he decided to shoot. It was a perfect shot.
He then had two other glorious chances in the second period. He was also all alone on a 2-on-1 with Joel Armia, but Armia could not get him the pass for the sure goal. Suzuki was also excellent on the penalty kill breaking up plays, and blocking shots.
We know Suzuki has a lot of talent, vision, and smarts, but it also looks like he’s a gamer — a guy who steps up the bigger the moment gets. This trade might end up being the best that general manager Marc Bergevin has made in his career. If Suzuki turns into the No. 1 centre for whom the team has searched for over 20 years, then Bergevin has finally achieved what many before him could not.
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Early in the game, it appeared that the centre who was going to take the spotlight was Jesperi Kotkaniemi as he scored in the first period. Kotkaniemi’s stellar play didn’t carry through the entire contest, but he had some strong moments, and he certainly wasn’t out of his element. Again, that does not sound like much, but remember who Kotkaniemi is playing against down the middle on the other side.
For a first play-in game, that was promising. Kotkaniemi had an excellent chance in the third period to score the go-ahead goal, but Matt Murray made a strong save. Kotkaniemi also threaded passes through the neutral zone well as he always does. He just needs to learn how to be a better puck-winner during in-tight battles. That’s never going to be his forté, but he needs to improve that area just the same. For a first play-in game, that was strong and it was promising.
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Carey Price, it was said, could be the difference-maker in the series. He sure seems intent on trying. The Penguins had nine shots in the first four minutes. The shots on goal after the first frame were 18-6 Pittsburgh. The opening period was quite lopsided but Price kept Montreal in it until they could find their legs, and they did as the second was a lot more even overall.
In the third period, Connor Sheary had a penalty shot with three minutes left and Price gave him nothing to shoot at. Price will keep needing to be at his very best, and it will be a complete theft, it looks like, if the Habs are to win this series. There are many moments that the ice gets lopsided when these two teams meet, but if Price can keep the Penguins at bay long enough for their frustration to kick in leading to poor choices defensively, then an upset is possible. It’s a long way to that finish line, but it appears the former league MVP has a vision of it.
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A word on a terrific penalty kill in the third period. The Penguins were tossing the puck around with ease on a 5-on-3. It was a clinic of passing, but somehow the Habs filled their lanes well enough to hold Pittsburgh off the scoresheet. Suzuki was the lone forward and he showed tremendous willingness to block bombs for 90 seconds putting his body on the line. It sure looked like the game-changer for the Penguins; instead, it was the Habs who gained some belief.
All of this, especially the Price goaltending, set up the moment of glory for Jeff Petry. He picked up a loose puck in the high slot and took advantage of some confusion created by Brendan Gallagher to fire it in for the victory. The players erupted rushing off the bench in celebration.
You could hear the Habs cheers because there was nothing else to listen to, and in a bizarre sort of way, it was even better with just that sound.
Sure, we miss the fans. Of course, we do, but there is something magnificent about hearing only that erupting joy from the athletes on the playing surface, instead of the white noise of fans.
Petry for the win. We have a series now. The Habs have learned they can compete, and when the underdog learns that, strange things can happen.
When you look at the ice times of the defencemen for the Canadiens you know exactly what they lack to be an upper-echelon club. Brett Kulak, Xavier Ouellet and Victor Mete were used sparingly in this one while Ben Chariot, Shea Weber and Jeff Petry were used a ton.
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The club has to fill these holes soon on the back end. Alexander Romanov is waiting to go, and he better be all that is hoped of him because the club needs help on the left side and now. Romanov was a shocking second-round pick two years ago by Trevor Timmins, and since then he has dominated the World Juniors being the best defender one year and close to the best another year.
Romanov lining up beside Petry would be huge next season. For now though, no harsh words for Ouellet, Kulak, and Mete. They are doing their best, but the moment against some of the best offensive talent in hockey is just a little too big for them. Mete could still get better, considering his age, to be a strong third pair blueliner, but Kulak and Ouellet have finished their ascension and they are what they are. They could help out most clubs in the league but are not enough for any team that has championship aspirations.
Claude Julien should be commended for his eye toward the future in terms of ice time for his centres of the future Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki. They have the formidable task of shutting down two of the best centres in hockey: Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin. It will likely not go well overall, but they need to learn. That is why the organization should feel grateful for the opportunity to play this best-of-five. However, at the same time, Julien was not able to go full throttle towards the future.
Xavier Ouellet and Brett Kulak were his options on the blue line instead of Noah Juulsen and Cale Fleury. It would have been bold to believe that they could rise to the occasion of neutralizing some of hockey’s best players but at the same time, if you are going to beat the Pittsburgh Penguins, it’s going to take something special.
It’s going to take a surprise where someone elevates to a level that makes the upset happen. Upsets don’t happen when everyone performs at their expected level. They happen when someone creates a surprise. It happens when the Oilers surprised the Canadiens by starting a goalie named Andy Moog that no one had even heard of. So while Julien filled the glass halfway with courageous moves down the middle of the sheet, as my peer, scout Grant McCagg likes to say “safe is death” as it likely something bold was called for here on defence too.
However, it’s first one to three wins, so play on until we get there, and along the way maybe that bold call by Julien will be made.
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