It was to be the final preseason game, with the Canadiens visiting Ottawa on Saturday night, and the Habs sent in something very close to what their season-opening lineup might be, but the home team appeared to still be sorting out the bottom of their lineup, as many of their top players were not dressed for the game. Nevertheless, the Habs snatched a 6-4 victory from the jaws of defeat after giving up the lead early in the third period.
Cole Caufield — Nick Suzuki — Rafael Harvey-Pinard
Alex Newhook — Kirby Dach — Juraj Slafkovský
Emil Heineman — Sean Monahan — Joel Armia
Michael Pezzetta — Jake Evans — Jesse Ylonen
Mike Matheson — Gustav Lindström
Mattias Norlinder — Justin Barron
Arber Xhekaj — Jordan Harris
One: Net-front territory matters: Not only did Juraj Slafkovsky tap a Mike Matheson rebound between Mads Sogaard’s pads to open the scoring, but the Senators returned the favour little more than a minute later. With both Mattias Norlinder losing the puck and Arber Xhekaj caught behind on the play, Parker Kelly outplayed Sean Monahan just outside the blue ice and was free to lift the puck over Samuel Montembeault’s right shoulder. Open opposition forwards in front of the blue ice are not a prescription for keeping the net clean. Kelly was very aware of this throughout the game.
Two: Does winning faceoffs really make a difference? Sometimes it does, as the Habs’ fourth line showed in the first. Jake Evans won a hard-fought faceoff, and Michael Pezzetta was ready for that in the high slot, releasing his one-timer instantly as the pass reached his stick. The high-energy sophomore forward was rewarded with a highly satisfactory go-ahead goal.
Three: Speaking of faceoffs, Evans was very solid in the faceoff circle, with a 69% for the night, 11 wins to only five losses. That was second to Suzuki’s 73% but better than Monahan’s 56%. Both Newhook (36%) and Dach (22%) have plenty of work to do in this department.
Four: The Habs’ first power play unit looked better tonight, with good control in the offensive zone, but then it should have when the Senators didn’t dress many of their top players, including Stutzle, Tkachuk, Chabot, and Norris. PP2 had a few chances, including Joel Armia’s shot on the crossbar early on, but the second unit also gave up multiple shorthanded breaks to the Senators, something that should be much less common.
Five: Nick Suzuki’s hockey IQ should be unquestionable, and he showed his smarts away from the puck with the second Habs goal, positioning himself just right during a board battle just outside the Ottawa blue line. When Justin Barron got him the puck, he was ready and accelerated past Erik Brannstrom. He then used Brannstrom as a screen to fool Sogaard on his sharp wrister. Really, Suzuki needs to shoot more, even if there happens to be a player named Caufield on the ice with him.
Six: Slafkovsky may not be the current top draft pick–Connor Bedard now wears that particular target on his back–but he is still being targeted by opposing players trying to make names for themselves. Kelly, in particular, was trying to provoke Slafkovsky or slam him into the boards at every opportunity, the first time triggering a first-period rumble between the two teams. Slafkovsky is clearly playing a more mature and situation-aware game than last season, and looking like he is ready to take a step forward in his sophomore season.
Seven: It was not a banner game for Xhekaj or Jordan Harris in the defensive zone. The duo allowed Roby Jarventie to slip between them for a breakaway and the 3-3 Ottawa goal, and then, just seconds later, Harris mishandled a loose puck in front of Montembeault, allowing Ridly Greig to tuck it in for the go-ahead goal. But then Xhekaj shot a rocket past Sogaard–and right through the net–and Harris recorded two secondary assists, both players mitigating their defensive issues. On top of that, Xhekaj declined all-out fight challenges from two of the Senators’ AHL players, but it is looking increasingly likely that Xhekaj might be starting the season in Laval.
Eight: Rafael Harvey-Pinard did not feature on the highlight reel tonight, although his pass to Suzuki on their two-on-one break could have turned into a pretty goal. Still, he played like he belonged on the top line, and the top trio not only outscored their opposition 2-0, they also only allowed a single high-danger scoring chance against.
Nine: Joel Armia started well, with a nice scoring chance in the opening minute, only to hit the crossbar. He had one more good scoring opportunity but then took a sloppy penalty at the end of the second period, and things seemed to go downhill from there. Admittedly his -2 for the night was the result of the two quick goals with Harris and Xhekaj on D, but his play in the third, in particular, surely did him no favours.
Ten: Another preseason win, what has this world come to? All right, it was not spectacular, and it was definitely a B-level squad dressed for Ottawa, but finishing the preseason with three wins out of six games, even out of six meaningless games, was still a pleasant surprise. However, the Habs will face a much tougher row to hoe next week with the start of the regular season.
HW Habs Three Stars
First Star: Nick Suzuki (1G, 1A, 3 shots, 18:42 TOI)
Second Star: Mike Matheson (0G, 1A, 5 shots, 20:06 TOI)
Third Star: Juraj Slafkovsky (1G, 0A, 3 shots, 14:31 TOI)