After some struggles on the road to start the season, the Habs certainly kicked off their four-game road trip on a high note with a pair of victories and are now over .500, a mark that probably not many expected them to be at three weeks into the season.
The Week That Was
Oct. 25: Wild 3, Canadiens 1 – Minnesota had some trouble keeping the puck out of their net early in the season so this game saw them with a renewed focus on defence and it certainly helped that Marc-Andre Fleury was sharp between the pipes. The Habs were down a goal in the third and had a golden opportunity to tie it but Mike Hoffman’s rather meek penalty shot was easily stopped and Joel Eriksson Ek’s second of the game into an empty net secured the Wild victory.
Oct. 27: Canadiens 3, Sabres 2 – The Habs got some production from someone not on the top line for a change. Brendan Gallagher scored a Gallagher-like goal on an odd-angle shot that bounced around before going in and nearly had a second one bounce off of him although that one (the winner) eventually was credited to Josh Anderson. In between, Kaiden Guhle scored his first career NHL tally on a one-timer in a spot where a winger usually shoots from. Meanwhile, Samuel Montembeault had one of his best starts as a Hab to help secure the win.
Oct. 29: Canadiens 7, Blues 4 – It wasn’t looking good for Montreal early on. Midway through the game, they were down by two goals. But less than two minutes into the third period, they were up by three as the offence came to life and Jordan Binnington had a rough night in goal for St. Louis. Cole Caufield scored twice while Christian Dvorak scored three times in the third for his first career hat-trick.
Goals: Cole Caufield (7)
Assists: Nick Suzuki (6)
Points: Caufield/Suzuki (10)
+/-: Jordan Harris (+6)
PIMS: Arber Xhekaj (15)
Shots: Cole Caufield (31)
News And Notes
– Generally, a team carries seven defencemen when going on the road although the Habs opted not to, instead sending Corey Schueneman back to Laval. Joel Edmundson hasn’t returned yet but it appears he’ll be back in the very near future which will leave the Habs with an intriguing decision to make which is the focus of the Final Thought segment.
– Joel Armia was activated off injured reserve while Juraj Slafkovsky (who wasn’t on IR) also returned to the lineup against St. Louis.
– Three weeks into the season, the Habs have had above-average goaltending relative to the rest of the league which is something few would have seen coming, particularly with four rookies on the back end. However, Jake Allen and Samuel Montembeault have posted a combined .908 SV% so far. Meanwhile, the league average heading into Sunday’s action is an even .900.
Last Game’s Lines:
Caufield – Suzuki – Dach
Anderson – Dvorak – Gallagher
Hoffman – Monahan – Armia
Pezzetta – Evans – Slafkovsky
Guhle – Savard
Harris – Kovacevic
Xhekaj – Wideman
The Week Ahead
Tuesday at Minnesota – For the second week in a row, the Habs open up their week against the Wild, this time only on the road. Starting with last week’s matchup, Minnesota has shored things up defensively having allowed only five goals in their last three games heading into Sunday’s action. Beyond that, nothing much has changed over the last week.
Thursday at Winnipeg – The Jets have been one of the stingier defensive teams in the league which shouldn’t come as much of a surprise with Rick Bowness behind the bench. However, they’re still averaging over three goals per game which has gotten them off to a solid 5-3 start. Except for Mark Scheifele (six goals), it has largely been a group effort with four others contributing three tallies including veteran journeyman Sam Gagner. Winnipeg might not have Nikolaj Ehlers available for this one as he’s on IR although there was some optimism that he might not miss much more than the minimum (which has already come and gone).
Saturday vs Vegas – There are few consistent elements in Vegas but one of them is cap trouble as they’re once again well into LTIR (and not just because they have Shea Weber). Robin Lehner is out for the season but goaltending hasn’t been an issue early on as both Logan Thompson and Adin Hill have been dominant to the point where the Golden Knights are the top defensive team in the league. They’re also getting plenty of production down the middle as Jack Eichel, Chandler Stephenson, and William Karlsson are within the top four in team scoring.
With the injuries they’ve had, the Habs have been able to punt the Juraj Slafkovsky decision down the road a bit but it’s about to come into focus. Oddly, that decision is going to be forced not by a forward but rather a defenceman as they will need to open up a roster spot for Joel Edmundson to return.
There are two options for them to consider. The first is to send a defender down to make room and that would probably be Arber Xhekaj. Realistically, getting some big minutes with Laval wouldn’t hurt and there’s no way Jordan Harris or Kaiden Guhle are going down right now. However, that would keep them carrying six defenders and 15 forwards and that’s not an ideal long-term plan.
The second (and better) option, therefore, is to send a forward down. Slafkovsky is an easy choice as one of only two waiver-exempt forwards on the roster and it’s safe to say the other one (Cole Caufield) isn’t going anywhere. It’s one thing to keep Slafkovsky up while there are options but now, when Edmundson returns and they want to carry seven defenders, that means someone would have to go on waivers if they want to keep Slafkovsky up. Is that going to be the jumping point then? Even though he’s doing well, this might be the best short-term solution.
Depth matters throughout the course of the season so risking losing someone on waivers (or embarrassing a veteran by waiving him) might not be the way they want to go. Montreal can delay Edmundson’s return a little longer but it seems like sometime this coming week, he’ll be ready to go which means it could very well be the first real question of determining if they want to send Slafkovsky to Laval. Going into the season, I had a few early pressure points in my head but a defenceman returning to force a decision certainly wasn’t at the top of that list. We’ll see what happens soon enough.