The Montreal Canadiens are certainly still entertaining hopes of second place in the North Division. Toronto seems to have already set the stage to win the division, but second is still wide open.
The Winnipeg Jets are holding down the spot now, and the Canadiens could have picked up hopes with a Thursday night win, but they fell victim again to not being good in overtime as the Jets won 4-3.
It has been only a short amount of time that Alex Burrows has been running the power play, and it’s been quite the dramatic turnaround.
The Canadiens under Kirk Muller’s tutelage would rely on Shea Weber taking 55-foot slap shots over and over again; it seemed to be the only strategy they employed. That does not work on today’s better goalies.
It was either a missed shot, a save, or — worst-case scenario — a broken hand for someone trying to set up a screen. It just did not work at all. Under Burrows, the power play is running at 50 per cent so far at four out of eight. Now, obviously this ridiculously high number is not going to continue, but let’s address what is going right for it to happen at all.
One is manpower as Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who can pass beautifully, is getting plenty of ice time, and is the main architect of success on the second unit that is superior to the first unit. That’s a small part, but the bigger part is actually the way the power play is constructed now. The Canadiens are working plays down low. They are succeeding at cross-seam passes. There is much more movement down low and between the hashes.
Big players like Joel Armia and Corey Perry are taking it to the net hard, which is followed by a swarm of bodies, even as much as four, skating to the goal for rebounds. Burrows is creating scenarios with the man advantage that has more mini-man advantages.
Tyler Toffoli has 14 goals in 22 games this season. If this were a complete 82-game season, and he kept his present pace, it would be a 50-goal season for the new member of the Canadiens forward group.
Toffoli, Nick Suzuki, and Jonathan Drouin was the combination that tied the game at two late in the second. In the third period, it was Drouin again who forced overtime by deflecting the Jeff Petry point shot. Drouin was the main catalyst of a terrific shift, with the goalie pulled that had 50 seconds of Habs pressure in it before they finally made it 3-3.
Drouin continues to be a revelation under Dominique Ducharme. He was pretty close to the best player in Quebec Major Junior Hockey under Ducharme, with only Nathan MacKinnon better when they were all together in Halifax.
Maybe something has clicked for Drouin when he looks behind the bench and sees an old friend. It’s as if he remembers how amazing he was then for this coach and feels he can do the same things now as well. What else can explain this? He didn’t just develop skills at his age that would suddenly explode. This is some sort of mind trick.
Whatever it is, it is working for Drouin. He, Ducharme, and the rest of the Montreal hockey world would love for this to continue whatever WandaVision sorcery it is.
The Jets have a great goalie and rely on him a lot, meaning they don’t defend particularly well. Much of the game is spent in their own zone as their defence is weak.
However, when the Jets do get into the opposition zone, they know how to finish. And at the end of the night, that’s what they count to decide who is happy.
You cannot make a mistake against them like Tyler Toffoli did. He gave the puck away directly to Mathieu Perrault, who promptly took the chance and scored. Suddenly, it’s 2-0 and that’s it, really. It felt over already after 20 minutes, considering the Canadiens are struggling to score goals.
No one is struggling to score more than Philip Danault. He is a shutdown centre, so you are not supposed to think he will get you 20 to 30 goals, but he is on the ice a lot and does carry with him two top wingers on his line, so he should, at least, have a sniff.
Danault has difficult match-ups and does often start the shift in his own zone. These are some of the reasons that it theoretically could be hard for Danault to score, but you cannot have a centre who has not scored on a goalie in more than a year. This is game 22 of a 56-game season. He is almost at a half season without a goal.
With just a small contribution from Danault, perhaps the Canadiens could have two or three wins on the board more than they have. Danault wanted more than $5 million per season in his next contract, it has been reported widely. But he’s not worth even close to this. There is a better way to spend this money. He should be offered something so poor from the GM that Danault can only head to the open market.
Offer him $3 million per year, because he won’t accept that. He then heads to free agency, where he discovers that no one in the entire league thinks he’s worth $5 million. The Canadiens can then start fresh with a centre who can score a goal inside 365 days and counting.
The first criticism of Dominique Ducharme as a goat is here. If your team is having a hard time scoring, perhaps you shouldn’t be relying on Danault for 22 minutes to get back into the game that you trail. Every night, a team struggling to score goals has as their top centre in ice time a player without a goal.
Meanwhile, a player who is showing increased creativity, vision, and excellent passing, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, is getting his usual sparse 13 minutes. Kotkaniemi is also playing with two of the least capable finishers on the team, so when he does show great vision and passing, it dies on the stick of two players who do not finish particularly well in Artturi Lehkonen and Joel Armia.
Player usage can make a difference and down early, it is clear that you need goals, so put the player who can get you some on the ice with higher quality players. Take the player off the ice who hasn’t scored on a goalie since before COVID-19 started.
It’s been written over and over in the Wilde Goats that the Canadiens need a puck-moving defenceman, because 47 of the minutes per game have only one mobile defender on the ice in Jeff Petry.
But let’s be more specific and more direct: Shea Weber with Ben Chiarot has to end.
They do not have enough speed to get out of the zone effectively. On the third goal for the Jets, it was Weber and Chiarot who just could not get it done in a fashion that we have seen before. Individually, Weber can get it done and Chiarot can get it done. Each needs to be a steady defender paired with a flashy defender.
Together, it just is not working. One of the most difficult moves for a head coach to make is to recognize that the once-amazing veteran is not so amazing anymore, that age is winning the inevitable battle it is having with your hockey skills. It’s a hard conversation, but there comes a time that you have to have it. That time is now.
Ducharme did a much better job at manpower in the second overtime game of his tenure. He used three forwards at one time, and seemed to favour his better skaters more than his better defenders. However, though they did have chances, the Canadiens still can’t get it done in overtime. They are now 0-4 with the extra man. They have also lost two shootouts. They are 0-6 trying to get an extra point so far this season.
There is still so much consternation two days later that goaltender coach Stephane Waite was not fired at the right time and under the right circumstances. It could have happened the next morning allowing the new head coach Dominique Ducharme to bask in the glory of his first win is being repeated as if it actually matters to the parties involved.
In the passage of time, is it really that important this type of optics to the overall story? It was the second intermission, but it was not as if Waite was actively coaching the player at the time. He was up in the press box having no influence on Price who was already in the game going about his business.
It seems as if it is much ado about nothing. The evaluation needs to be on the actual point of the firing; not on the optics of it. The optics feels like attack for attack’s sake. Others are speculating that Price himself demanded the firing. If you have no evidence of this, and the player himself denies it, it all seems inappropriate.
Let’s get to the facts of this, because factually this is extremely easy. Carey Price has been sporting a save percentage about 20 points lower than expected for a long period of time.
When GM Marc Bergevin examines Price with an .890, he believes Price should be at a .915. He needs his goalie to be better and he has seen, apart from three weeks in the bubble, that his goalie has not been good enough for a long time. Bergevin can’t imagine that Price can be worse than .890, but he can imagine that he can be much better.
It’s a perfect risk-reward to bring in Sean Burke. It can’t get worse, but it can get much better, so make a change. That’s it and that’s all there is to this. If you want to see UFOs, that’s on you.
Stephane Waite was fired because the team’s number one asset is underachieving. Point final.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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