The Montreal Canadiens had a bit of a Jekyll-and-Hyde routine going in the first half of the season. They started with a 13-11-2 record, which was better than anyone expected, but quickly hit a wall and have gone 3-11-1 in their past 15 games, which is the second-worst record in the league since early December. Though the wheels came off the Habs wagon a month ago, these three players have been pleasant surprises in the first 41 games of the season.
Expectations were not high for Arber Xhekaj at training camp. He was set to begin his first pro season, but most thought that would be with the Laval Rocket. He had a strong final junior season in the Ontario Hockey League (OHL), helping the Hamilton Bulldogs win a championship as their top defenceman, but as an overage, he was supposed to be a force at both ends of the ice.
Now, halfway through his rookie NHL season, it is hard to envision the Habs’ blue line without him. He brings a physical element, which was expected from his 6-foot-4, 238-pound frame, but he also added plenty of offence. He has five goals, which leads the league among rookie defencemen, and his 13 points are one behind Owen Power, teammate Kaiden Guhle and Jake Sanderson who are tied for second in points by a rookie defender this season.
Sean Monahan was acquired on the eve of the season (along with a first-round pick), coming off a disappointing eight-goal, 23-point campaign. The Flames were eager to get his $6.375 million cap hit off their books and were willing to give up a significant asset to make it happen.
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Then Monahan arrived in Montreal and looked like he did five years ago when he was a perennial 30-goal scorer. He scored on opening night and continued to put up points until he was injured in early December. In 25 games, he had six goals and 17 points, which put him on pace for 20 goals and 56 points. He has missed the last 16 games and is still tied for fourth on the team in points.
In training camp, most fans thought Guhle was ticketed for the minors. It seemed to be the best spot for a 20-year-old after wrapping up a successful Junior career with a Western Hockey League (WHL) championship and being named Playoff MVP as well. It seemed likely he would join the Rocket and play big minutes at even strength as well as on the penalty kill and maybe even earn a little power-play time. There, the 2020 first-round pick could develop without too much pressure looming over every little mistake as there would be in the NHL.
The Montreal Canadiens defeated the Pittsburgh Penguins 5-4 in OT last night. Kaiden Guhle played another really strong game against Pittsburgh as he added two assists and while he was on the ice, Montreal absolutely outplayed the Penguins. Excellent performance! pic.twitter.com/N94JxgAWuQ— Andy & Rono (@ARHockeyStats) November 13, 2022
Then came the preseason, and Guhle proved to be too good to send down. When left defencemen Mike Matheson and Joel Edmundson were injured early in the season, Guhle was forced into a huge role, and he excelled. He has scored two goals and 14 points in 36 games and is averaging over 20:00 per night. He has often played on the top pairing at even strength and is a regular on the penalty-killing unit as well. Many fans would have been happy to see him play on the top pairing in Laval at this point in his career, but he has taken on that role for the Canadiens already.
The first half of the season was not terrific for the Habs. They wrapped it up by losing eight of nine games to drop to 16-22-3 on the season. Though they have sunk to 27th in the standings, there were some bright spots to keep fans engaged and entertained. Xhekaj, Monahan and Guhle really exceeded expectations in the first half, even if the team did not perform well overall.
A Montreal Canadiens fan who enjoys the game as a fan, writer, coach and referee.