It’s been the biggest game of the year for three weeks running now, and the one in Carolina on Sunday night was far bigger than all the ones that preceded it.
It was a chance for the Habs to move into a tie for the first wild-card spot with a win over the red-hot Hurricanes. Carey Price going back-to-back nights shows how important the game is for the Habs and how healthy Price is as well.
Unfortunately, Montreal fell to the Hurricanes in a 2-1 overtime loss.
- The fourth line was at it again, looking more like a third line. Nate Thompson has been a strong acquisition for the Habs — and getting stronger. He had a little trouble getting to the Habs’ pace and leaving the slow Los Angeles pace behind. Now that he is up to speed, he is exactly what GM Marc Bergevin hoped for. He wins draws and he is responsible defensively. He is also a strong puck battler, winning more than his share. Jordan Weal, also added to the roster late in the season, is bringing a lot of speed, backing up defenders every time he carries it up the ice. Weal is also a great puck winner in the corners for a player of not much size. It’s all about balance. Ask Saku Koivu, who was one of the best despite his size. Paul Byron is the final member of this line showing a lot of chemistry. He has found his scoring touch again with goals on consecutive nights. Byron also brings his tremendous speed. When the fourth line is backing up defenders and instilling fear in everyone, you’ve got something good brewing. They’re so good, in fact, ask Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia if, perhaps, Thompson’s trio is the third line on the team.
- Carey Price wasn’t busy in the second period, not seeing a shot until the 15-minute mark, but he sure was called on for some greatness in the third period. The best player on the Hurricanes, Sebastian Aho, made a clear-cut breakaway was stopped by Price. A short time later, another great Hurricanes shooter, Teuvo Teravainen, came in with another breakaway. Price again made the save. This was all with a 1-0 lead so you really have to give all the credit in the world to the goalie for making the most important saves — not just when games are out of hand either way. Price was recently voted by the players as the best goalie in hockey. You may disagree, but the players will tell you that when Price is standing there, they don’t see much net. Price couldn’t take it home, though, and it was no fault of his own as the puck deflected off Jordie Benn, who was trying to block it. It went off the hip of Benn only 10 feet in front of Price. He was set up for the save so this was most unfortunate for everyone who deserved a better fate. It was 1-1 suddenly with five minutes left. With two minutes left, it was Jordan Staal who beat Shea Weber wide, and Price had to make yet another one-on-one save. What a performance from Price, and he still hadn’t gotten the game to overtime. It was nervy. In the extra session, it was the Hurricanes who had two minutes of possession straight, and they turned it into an Andrei Svechnikov goal for a 2-1 win. The Habs will take the point. It is valuable.
- There were many outstanding Habs in this game. The team is playing strong hockey down the stretch. The reports of their death were greatly exaggerated. They appeared to be tired. They appeared out of energy. Instead, it is seven points out of eight, and the pressure is on the Blue Jackets to match them or the Habs will make the playoffs. Tuesday, the club plays the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre in a game in which they will have to make sure they don’t take their opponent lightly. The Panthers have some players that can beat you, even if their record is not stellar.
- When the Habs are playing a weaker team, the defenders who can’t play the modern NHL game are not exposed. They look fine. One can get the impression that the Habs are close to contending for something big. However, when the Habs have to play a true 200-foot team bringing speed and commitment at both ends of the ice all the time, the weaker defenders on Montreal are revealed. This is what the first period resembled. The Hurricanes are one of the best teams in the league possession-wise. If you are not a believer in Corsi numbers, you should be watching the No. 1-ranked Hurricanes. Carolina is strong and for good reason. They are everywhere, it seems, at least in the first frame. They dominated the game. It seemed as if they had an extra player on the ice. This is actually how many weaker teams feel when they meet the Habs, who also play a strong five-on-five game and who showed their own strong Corsi in the second period, holding Carolina off the shot clock for the first 15 minutes. Benn, Christian Folin and Brett Kulak seem strong many nights against these weaker teams. However, when the Hurricanes are bringing their modern 2019 hockey to the sheet, like the first period, then those marginal rearguards look like they’re from another era of the game. The Habs have almost all of the pieces offensively. Just look at the five-on-five goal totals for Montreal. They’re one of the top teams offensively in the league. Certainly, they could use an upper-echelon game breaker — everyone could use another one of those. When Montreal is ready to contend for the cup, they will need a 90-point player or the ultimate success won’t happen. The point is they are very close up front. However, they are not close on the blue line when they play the best the league has to offer. They need three upgrades to puck-moving defenders to get into the Boston Bruins section of the standings. Alexander Romanov and Josh Brook will be the hope for two, and Noah Juulsen being healthy is the hope for the third. The improvements are in the pipeline. Now about that game-breaker, 90-point forward: if it isn’t Kotkaniemi, then he isn’t in the pipeline yet. Nick Suzuki becoming upper-echelon would be surprising.
- The update on Ryan Poehling is not soothing so far. In Game 1 of the playoffs, the Habs first rounder Poehling went head first into the boards and hurt his neck. He was left out of the second game as even though it was a conference championship, it was not vital to St. Cloud because they had already earned a No. 1 seed in the regional finals. St. Cloud State issued an update tonight saying that Poehling would be re-evaluated on Monday. They did not suggest Poehling is a sure thing for the regionals next weekend. A lack of detail from a team is always concerning. It usually is an indication that they don’t really know yet. Incidentally, the Huskies enter the regionals as the No. 1 seed in the country. St. Cloud State will play the last seed of the 16 still alive for a national title — American International College out of Springfield, Mass., in Fargo, N.D. Another top prospect shining right now at the college level is Cayden Primeau, who helped Northeastern win the Hockey East title. Primeau was the tournament MVP with a .963 save percentage. Northeastern will play Cornell in the semifinal of the East regional competition in Providence, R.I. Another top prospect doing well in the post-season is Suzuki. Suzuki was traded to the Guelph Storm mid-season. So far, that seems to be an exciting move for his hockey career. The Storm won 7-0 over the Kitchener Rangers on Sunday to take a two-game lead in the series. Another top prospect is not doing as well in the Western Hockey League as Brook’s Moose Jaw Warriors are down two games to none in their first-round series with the Saskatoon Blades.
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