As the Habs took to the ice for their final preseason game on Saturday night, some interesting battles for roster spots were taking place all over Claude Julien’s roster. Up front, Jacob de la Rose, Charles Hudon, Nikita Scherbak, Kenny Agostino, and Michael Chaput were all playing in the hopes of remaining with the big club. Only two will accomplish the feat, with one likely being the 13th forward for the season opener on Wednesday.
David Schlemko’s injury opened the door to a similar battle on the blue line. The only change is that no one is likely to be cut due to the Schlemko injury. Nonetheless, Karl Alzner, Jordie Benn, and Xavier Ouellet were playing for two spots on the opening night roster. Simon Després was also dressed for this one, though his chances were not as good as the other three.
Carey Price was the starting netminder and was opposed by Craig Anderson. For those keeping track, the notable absentees for tonight included Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Brendan Gallagher, Victor Mete, and Mike Reilly and it really showed. The team lacked a spark and continually missed the net with the few chances they generated on their way to a 3-0 loss.
The opening five minutes were scattered and disorganized for both squads although Ouellet showed some poise early as he made a few good defensive plays to keep the Sens to the outside. This start was a stark contrast to the last three games as the Habs were being outhustled to every loose puck, and they finally paid for it barely four minutes into the game. Chaput sloppily attempted to get the puck out of the zone and both Benn and Jeff Petry were checking air when Chaput coughed up the puck. The result was an unchallenged juicy rebound for Tom Pyatt who chopped the puck over Price and into the net.
As play resumed, the same sloppiness continued for both teams. Watching the first period was one of the first time this entire preseason where it was believable that the Habs are a team predicted to finish at the bottom of the standings.
At the midway point of the period, Jonathan Drouin had a solid shift where he used his hands to create some scoring chances that weren’t finished by Joel Armia and Paul Byron. Noah Juulsen was then sent to the sin-bin for a solid cross-check on Pyatt, undoubtedly a penalty. The good news is that the team covered the Sens well and didn’t really allow a good chance to score against Price, with Plekanec opting for a vintage “crest-shot” on a 2-on-1, the best chance for either team during the man advantage.
Ouellet opened the last five minutes of play with a solid body check on Mikkel Boedker. Seeking some vengeance, Chris Tierney was guilty of a tripping minor. The Habs’ power play looked about as dangerous as the Sens’ first attempt. With the penalty expired, the Senators spent the last few minutes of the period in Montreal’s zone, a period that surely left both coaches wanting more from their respective teams.
The second period started with as much precise passing and desperate play as the first. Roughly four minutes into the period, Petry took advantage of the weak play to line up a big hit as Brady Tkachuk attempted a zone entry. In terms of puck plays and positioning, Drouin and Ouellet continued to be the most effective players for Montreal.
With twelve minutes to play, Tkachuk used his impressive strength to outmuscle both Juulsen and Ouellet before finding Matt Duchene who one-timed it home to make it 2-0 Ottawa. One troubling aspect that was evident in the first 30 minutes of play in this game was the bad decision to try the extra pass in shooting zones in the offensive zone. This is something that the coaching staff must get out of their play quickly before Wednesday’s game.
With eight minutes to play, Després was called for hooking (or lifting an opponent’s stick). The Habs appeared well on their way to killing this penalty until a scramble ensued in front of Price. A loose puck sat in front of Mark Stone who completed a pretty pass across the ice to Bobby Ryan who quickly beat Price for a 3-0 lead. The rest of the period returned to both teams struggling to land a pass, with little to no scoring chances.
Although the play remained extremely disorganized, the Habs were at least spending more time with the puck on their stick in the third period. This quick start was short lived as Plekanec was called for hooking. The Canadiens were effective in handling the power play, but it did cost them momentum.
Antti Niemi, who replaced Price for the third period, made his first big save with Alex Formenton breaking in alone after easily skating passed Alzner. Montreal controlled most of the play despite the harsh reality that both teams appeared rather content to spend this last period going through the motions. This appeared quite strange to me as some of these players had jobs on the line. It’s worth pointing out that with the Habs being quite young, they are likely to be a team that falls into the game style of the opposition quite often and this observation was true tonight.
With seven minutes to play, Matthew Peca used his speed to create a scoring chance at the Ottawa net. Max McCormick, who had been seeking a fisticuffs partner for most of the night, finally found an opponent in Chaput. McCormick was the clear winner of the fight, unsurprisingly. The final three minutes included a breakaway by Magnus Paajarvi for the Sens as Benn displayed his lack of speed, and more of both teams floating on skates, anxiously waiting for the start of the season.
A little special feature with training camp concluding, I’ve included below my personal selection for line combinations once the games count on Wednesday night. I’m sure to be wrong on some of them, but there you have it.
Drouin and Kotkaniemi have looked dangerous as a duo but no one has completed them properly yet.
The most dynamic line of the preseason will get a chance to replicate their success to start the year.
Speed, speed, speed.
Hudon must find a way to be more effective and it’ll be tough playing with Plekanec. Armia hasn’t been terrible, but he also hasn’t really fit in anywhere.
Scratched: Scherbak and de la Rose
Cut: Agostino and Chaput: Both have played well and will likely be recalled at some point. Keeping one of them up is not worth exposing Scherbak to waivers.
Petry is the top defenceman by default, Reilly played his way to the top pairing.
The most consistent pairing of the preseason. They’re likely to be outmatched some nights, but they’ll learn.
Alzner has been less noticeable, whereas Ouellet has earned this spot on the roster.
Benn is lucky Schlemko is hurt otherwise he could have very well found himself on waivers. Now, he should get a ninth life to outplay Ouellet over the first few weeks of the season.
Després simply hasn’t been good enough to replace any of the defenders on this board, and Benn really hasn’t played very well so…
HabsWorld Habs 3 Stars
1st Star – Xavier Ouellet
Perhaps the only player who appeared to care that he had a job on the line this evening. Ouellet made good decisions with the puck, good decisions away from the puck, controlled his gap relatively well, and actually joined the attack a few times. He has likely outplayed Benn for the number six position on the blue line for the season opener.
Stats: 0 points, -1, 2 shots, 4 hits, 22:26 T.O.I.
2nd Star – Jonathan Drouin
Drouin was playing centre tonight and if there’s one takeaway from the game, it’s that Drouin is much much better on the wing. He was the best forward as he continued to skate and act as though he cared whether the Habs won this game. For a player who at times seemed uninterested at the end of last season, it was nice to see a Drouin that cared despite everyone else not putting forth much of an effort.
Stats: 0 points, -1, 1 shot, 1 hit, 16:04 T.O.I.
3rd Star – Noah Juulsen
With the team going through the motions tonight, it’s time to highlight a player who has quietly had a solid camp. Juulsen has secured his spot on the top-four of the team’s blue line to start the season, though he’s likely to become the fifth defender when Weber returns. Tonight surely wasn’t his best game, but it’s hard to make a pass when the target is not in motion.
Stats: 0 points, -1, 3 hits, 19:33 T.O.I.
Honourable Mention – Carey Price
Price hasn’t been stellar this preseason, but we should all chill out, right? After last season, I don’t think anyone should be chill about Price’s lack of making the big saves. Still, his positioning intimidates players from taking shots. When the rest of the team is going through the motions, that’s enough to get an honourable mention. But the success of this team will undoubtedly depend heavily on Price’s ability to be a game changer like he’s been in the past.
Stats: 22 saves (21 shots), 0.857 save %, 4.50 GAA, 40:00 T.O.I.