It’s still early in the 2020-21 season and anything can happen, but the Montreal Canadiens must be satisfied with their performance so far. That’s putting it mildly.
They took the Toronto Maple Leafs, who have been heavily favored to win the North Division by analysts, to the limit in the season-opening game, dropping a 5-4 overtime decision that could have gone either way for starters. More impressively, they bounced back in a big way against the Edmonton Oilers with a decisive 5-1 win in Game 2.
The margin of victory might be statement enough for many. However, here are the five others the Canadiens made in the win:
5. Petry Scores Two Against Former Team
While the extension to which general manager Marc Bergevin signed defenseman Jeff Petry this offseason was sheer genius, it pales in comparison to his acquisition in the first place. Bergevin gave up two draft picks to get the co-No. 1 defenseman from the Oilers themselves back in 2015.
Now in his sixth full year with the Canadiens, Petry has faced his former team a number of times. Up to now, his best game came in December 2019, when he notched a goal and two assists. His most recent performance, in which he effectively hand-passed the puck to himself through the crease before swinging around the net to shoot it in on his first of two goals, might have topped it. At the very least, Petry continued to make his former team regret the trade, which is a statement in and of itself.
4. Canadiens Contain McDavid by Committee
Said Petry talking to the media after the win: “We discussed it before the game… The five guys on the ice, it was everyone’s responsibility [to contain] Connor McDavid.” And contain McDavid the Habs did, limiting him (and Leon Draisaitl) to a single (secondary) assist on the night on Slater Koekkoek’s lone Oilers tally.
In fact, indirectly speaking, targeting McDavid paid off at the other end of the ice for the Canadiens, too. Joel Edmundson, who was wasn’t all that noticeable most of the night (which is generally a good thing for a defensive defenseman), made his presence known by throwing a glancing hit on McDavid. The hit led to a turnover and Tomas Tatar’s first of two markers, which ended up being the game-winning goal.
For Edmundson, it was a marked improvement relative to Game 1, as he continues to adjust to his new team after coming over from the Carolina Hurricanes in the offseason. When asked of the hit after the game, head coach Claude Julien gave Edmundson full credit for the better showing.
“We talked about [the hit] after the game too. Like I said earlier, let’s give this guy a chance to adjust to his new team and a different system than he played last year and I think that’s what he’s doing. He was a much better player tonight. So, I see good things happening,” he said.
Granted, there were times McDavid broke loose and displayed his world-class talent, but, on those occasions, goalie Carey Price was there, including on a breakaway when the outcome of the game was still up in the air. After the game, Price called it more of a reaction than read on the play, on which he was obviously able to close all open holes in time.
3. Price Makes a Difference
Heading in, much of the focus had been on Price, who has historically struggled against the Oilers. He had had a career 3-9-1 record against the Oilers, with a 3.65 goals-against average and .861 save percentage. While Price lost the shutout bid late in the game, his overall 34-save performance was game-breaking both in quality and in actual impact, according to forward Brendan Gallagher.
“Could have been a different game if we don’t have [Price] back there,” he said. “We’re fortunate enough to have a pretty great one in between the pipes for us to make those saves.”
For his part, Price downplayed the significance of his performance against the Oilers. He implied it was just another game.
“For whatever reason, it seems an individual… struggles against certain teams, but I’ve always kept the mindset of every game’s a new one,” he said. “So, we just came in here and tried to get a good start. We had a pretty solid game all around.”
2. Turnaround on the Penalty Kill
They say the goalie is a team’s best penalty killer, and, with 10 saves on the Oilers’ man advantage on the night for Price, that was probably true. However, it was a team effort, with the Oilers going scoreless on three chances, in sharp contrast to against the Maple Leafs, when the Canadiens allowed two power-play goals (four opportunities).
While it’s fairly commonplace to keep opponents off the board on the power play over an entire game, the feat was impressive for several reasons. Firstly, the Canadiens seem to be at least on track to remedying what was one of their Achilles’ heels from last season (19th-ranked 78.7% efficiency rate). Secondly, it was against the Oilers, who had a league-leading 29.5% efficiency rate on the power play last season.
Finally, the Canadiens also got a shorthanded goal for their effort. Jake Evans buried his own rebound on an odd-man rush with linemate Paul Byron to put the Canadiens up 4-0 midway through the second, with the Habs at least superficially speaking dominating the contest every which way, with three five-on-five goals and one each on the power play and penalty kill.
1. Depth Continues to Be Displayed
More to the point, with the Evans goal, players from three of the Canadiens’ four lines got points in the game, further showcasing the Canadiens’ newfound depth up front. Against the Maple Leafs, it was primarily the Nick Suzuki line that clicked. Against the Oilers, it was the top Phillip Danault line.
Needless to say, the Canadiens have the depth to score a lot of goals, with nine over two games so far. Holding the Oilers to a single goal also showed off their defensive depth for arguably the first time after just a so-so showing against the Leafs. While the victory over the Oilers wasn’t perfect by any stretch (35 shots against), there was a lot to like.
In effect, the Canadiens earned a passing grade in their first test of the season against the division’s early-season favorites in the Maple Leafs. The Habs did in their second test too, proving they can compete with and beat a high-powered offense that has had their way with them in the past. Their next test comes on Monday, when they face the Oilers again.
“It’s important for us not to think this convincing win is going to give us an edge in the next game,” said Julien. “We’ll take the two points, because they’re important, but you have to realize we’ll probably have an even tougher opponent two days from now.”