Penalties have been a problem for the Habs this season and that trend continued heading into the holiday break. However, Montreal managed to pick up three points in spite of that in the first leg of their road trip.
The Week That Was
Dec. 19: Canadiens 3, Coyotes 2 (OT) – Leads were few and far between in this one as the game was tied for all of 3:39. Cole Caufield scored early in the second but Arizona tied it less than a minute later. Christian Dvorak restored the lead three minutes after that but again, the Coyotes tied it. Along the way, Samuel Montembeault had a very strong outing as frankly, Montreal was lucky to be tied heading into overtime. Early on in the extra session, Mike Hoffman came in on the rush and fired one past Karel Vejmelka to pick up the extra point.
Dec. 21: Avalanche 2, Canadiens 1 (OT) – Anthony Richard opened up the scoring as he used his speed to create a breakaway and slid one past Alexandar Georgiev. However, from that point on, it was the Habs holding on for dear life. Jake Allen was only beaten once in regulation – by former Hab Artturi Lehkonen on the power play – and was the only reason this game was close. They weren’t able to get the overtime winner for the second straight game though as Mikko Rantanen potted that one a little before the two-minute mark.
Dec. 23: Stars 4, Canadiens 2 – The fourth line hasn’t scored often this season but got two goals in this one, one from Jake Evans and the other from Michael Pezzetta. Generally speaking, good things happen when the fourth line scores twice. But the Habs ran into some penalty trouble and against a team with a good power play, that’s not a good combination. The Stars scored three unanswered with the man advantage in the second half of the game before Joel Kiviranta potted an empty-netter late.
Goals: Cole Caufield (19)
Assists: Kirby Dach (17)
Points: Nick Suzuki (31)
+/-: Chris Wideman (+6)
PIMS: Arber Xhekaj (65)
Shots: Cole Caufield (114)
News And Notes
– Montreal has the third-worst penalty differential in the league at -20 – they’ve taken 152 and drawn 132.
– Spanning the last three seasons, Jonathan Drouin has not scored a power play goal in 226:33 of ice time. Meanwhile, on the back end, while Chris Wideman is viewed as a power play guy, he has yet to score a power play goal in a Montreal uniform in 204:31.
– Michael Pezzetta’s two-point game against Dallas was the first multi-point game of his NHL career. He managed the feat three times with Laval.
Last Game’s Lines:
Drouin – Suzuki – Armia
Caufield – Dach – Hoffman
Slafkovsky – Dvorak – Anderson
Pezzetta – Evans – Richard
Edmundson – Guhle
Harris – Kovacevic
Xhekaj – Wideman
The Week Ahead
Wednesday at Tampa Bay – After being outclassed just last weekend, the Habs will get a quick opportunity for revenge. Their top three forwards are all at a point a game or better while Mikhail Sergachev isn’t too far off that pace as well. The Lightning lost both of their games after beating Montreal while they got an extended holiday break after their last game was postponed. If you’re looking for a reason to be optimistic, they might be a bit rustier than the Canadiens as a result.
Thursday at Florida – Few teams have been bigger disappointments than the Panthers this season which is great news for the Habs since, you might have heard, they have Florida’s unprotected first-rounder. Scoring goals isn’t the problem, they just can’t keep them out of their net as Sergei Bobrovsky has struggled considerably while Spencer Knight has also underachieved. Florida was without Aleksander Barkov for their last game due to a leg injury and there’s no word yet on if he’ll be available for this one. The Panthers have a pair of former Canadiens up front in Nick Cousins and Eric Staal who both have three goals on the season.
Saturday at Washington – Who would have thought Charlie Lindgren would be making a push for the starting job with the Capitals? The former Montreal third-stringer is in the top 20 in the NHL in both GAA (14th) and SV% (19th) which has helped keep them in the race when Darcy Kuemper has been banged up. Speaking of injuries, Nicklas Backstrom and Tom Wilson are both nearing returns although they might not quite be ready for this game. Washington might get T.J. Oshie back, however. Former Hab defenceman Erik Gustafsson has been productive with his new team with 17 points so far on the season.
While I understand Martin St. Louis’ desire to play his top players top minutes all the time, there’s a balancing act that needs to happen from time to time. Nick Suzuki is off to a fine start to his season and has taken a big step forward towards becoming a top centre. However, he’s not ready to log over 21 minutes a night against top competition for 82 games.
Yes, he played 21 minutes a game under St. Louis last season but that was only in a half a year (a little less than that, even). And most, if not all of those games, were virtually meaningless. Even if you’re of the mindset that the Habs will be closer to the top of the Connor Bedard sweepstakes when all is said and done, Montreal’s games at this point are still meaningful; they’re not that far out of the playoff mix yet. It’s easier to play 21 minutes a night when there’s nothing at stake and no pressure compared to when results matter at least somewhat.
Over these last couple of weeks, Suzuki looked tired. It’s not just the offence drying up either; that was a given based on a shooting percentage that was well beyond what could realistically be maintained over a full season. That’s the by-product of his usage, the fatigue is going to set in. Some nights here and there with lesser usage won’t hurt; instead, it’ll actually help get him through to the end of the season.
Having Suzuki log 21 or more minutes a game is a reasonable long-term goal for him. It doesn’t have to happen this year though. If he has to be scaled back a little bit, that’s okay. That’s part of development and while he plays like a seasoned veteran, he’s 23 years old; there’s more development runway to work with. A bit of restraint with his ice time could go a long way towards having him continue to be an impact top liner in the second half of the season. It’s tough for a coach to cut playing time for his top players but in Suzuki’s case, it certainly wouldn’t hurt.