Last week, the Montreal Canadiens played three games, one each vs the Vancouver Canucks, Seattle Kraken and Philadelphia Flyers. The Habs managed a record of 1-1-1, earning three points on a possible six points, against three non-playoff teams. Despite the .500 record, there was some good to come of it.
The bar for success for the remainder of this season may be set low, but the main focus is to improve incrementally. They have found a way to improve in some aspects under interim head coach Martin St. Louis, and this week’s takeaways highlight a few areas.
A Top Line for Montreal
How long has it been since the Canadiens had a legitimate top line? Decades perhaps? Now, in a season that will go down as one of the worst in franchise history, there is a silver lining as they may have found one. The line of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Josh Anderson have been more than just entertaining, they’ve been productive. With an expected goals for percentage of 51.1%, the most productive forward line to play together for more than 100 minutes this season.
Suzuki and Caufield are two reasons why fans can have hope that this rebuild/renovation will be quicker than expected. Despite their young ages, 22 and 21 respectively, they have proven themselves to be bonafide top-six forwards. Just a few months ago, Caufield would have hesitated, but for him, the key was confidence. He had that in the playoffs last season, and under St. Louis, has rediscovered it. His overtime goal vs Philadelphia is a perfect example. He stepped off the bench, accepted the pass from Rem Pitlick then fired a bullet without hesitation over Carter Hart’s shoulder.
Suzuki may already be a top-line center, he has already surpassed his career-best in goals and points, has an All-Star game appearance and is averaging over 20 minutes per game against top opposition. All that, despite a rotating carousel of linemates due to injuries and COVID-19 protocols, he has remained the one constant for the Habs this season.
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Anderson had no points in the three games played this past week, however, he averaged over 20 minutes of ice time per game, playing an aggressive north-south power forward style he has become known for. His presence has helped to open space on the ice as defenders try to counter his speed and physical presence, leaving gaps for the younger, more skilled linemates to find and exploit.
Canadiens Have Found Resiliency
The good news for that top-line is they can play well apart as well. Part of that reason is the Canadiens have returned to playing by instinct under St. Louis. He has also given permission to the defence to step up into the play, creating odd-man rushes. There’s a downside to that as sometimes, they can get caught behind the play as seen here vs Philadelphia
It’s not all bad news, as the Canadiens have shown a newfound resilience in their game. With an ability to play an offensive style that can help lead to comebacks. This week had two, a two-goal comeback vs the Kraken that earned them a point in an overtime loss, then a comeback win in overtime vs Philadelphia.
Canadiens’ Special Teams
This isn’t to say St. Louis doesn’t have more work to do. He faces a monumental task of improving the Habs’ special teams. Overall this season, they have the 31st ranked power play (PP) at a woeful 13.0%. Teams are not afraid to take penalties against them, especially when tied for the league lead in shorthanded goals against with eight. The penalty kill isn’t any better, sitting 29th overall at 73.7%, there are games where giving up goals while shorthanded has cost them points in the standings.
In their three games this past week, however, the PP has seen some improvement. Mostly in their approach, with more puck movement around the perimeter. This has led to PK units opening up space down low at the goal line, allowing the Habs to get the puck to the forward behind the net who then can make a quick pass to the shooter in the “bumper” position in the slot. This has led to some quality scoring opportunities, thanks to Suzuki’s consistent play, allowing their PP to be 28th in the league over the last week.
The Canadiens’ PK units have been able to climb up to 26th overall, based on their more aggressive puck pursuit in their own zone. While they have slight improvements in league standings statistically in special teams, there is no doubt the Habs have miles to go before their special teams play isn’t more of a hindrance than an asset.
Overall, everyone in Habs nation can leave the week happy. Fans watched three entertaining games, two of which featured comebacks led by the team’s youthful core. Also, they watched a team fight for a .500 record, in a season where they played the first half at .250, making it impossible to fall out of the top 10 at this summer’s NHL Entry Draft. So the fans who want to see wins and improvement are happy, and the fans that want a high pick are also satisfied.