The long forced-break is over.
After 10 days off due to one player, Joel Armia, getting COVID-19, the Montreal Canadiens returned to the ice on Tuesday night to play the Edmonton Oilers.
The Canadiens’ schedule to conclude the season is a massive challenge, with 25 games in only 43 days. In game one, the question was rust or rest and the answer was, without a doubt, rest. Montreal was outstanding in posting a 4-0 win over a tired Edmonton club.
There comes a time in every great marathoner’s career that he realizes that he just can’t do 42 kilometres anymore. His times are just not good. He is fine for a long portion of the race, but that last stretch is too much.
It’s at that time in his running career that he switches to half-marathons. His times over 21 kilometres are still outstanding. He hasn’t lost it at that shorter distance — at least not yet, though he does know that that, too, is inevitable.
Shea Weber is now a half-marathoner. The Canadiens need to treat him like a half-marathoner and they might just keep getting great minutes out of him for a lot longer than is expected, if they run him into the ground. This was 10 days between games and it showed significantly for Weber. He got a chance to rest his aching muscles. He got a chance to feel right again.
Weber was dominant in the first period. He hit the post twice and looked like he was skating better as well. Weber must have his minutes managed. If he goes 28 minutes, he’s going to look like the aging marathoner. If he goes 17 minutes, you keep him fresh, so he can look like a half-marathoner putting in great times.
Give him something he can handle and there’s a good chance that no one has to write him off just yet. Manage his minutes and he may manage to surprise you.
When you watch a player mature as he continues along in the NHL, what you are looking for is that the player continues to raise his ceiling. You want to see him improve in little ways. Perhaps he can slow the game down a little. Perhaps he wins more puck battles. Perhaps he shows more vision. Perhaps he gets his shot away more. Perhaps he makes better decisions.
Perhaps, in the case of Jesperi Kotkaniemi, he does all of those things.
Kotkaniemi continues to lift the ceiling in his career. We do not know what his ceiling is because he keeps showing us more every week. There has been no moment of stagnation at all this season. Everyone went into the 2021 campaign thinking it was Nick Suzuki who was going to explode and lift his ceiling significantly, but it’s been a year of only minor growth for Suzuki.
For Kotkaniemi, it’s a much better story this season. The additional strength he is carrying as he grows into his body makes him not look like Bambi in puck battles. He is actually using that long reach to win a significant number of puck battles, which is the cornerstone to a successful hockey player. Not many speak of this, but if you can’t win a puck, you can’t do anything good. You are simply defending.
Remember, as well, that Kotkaniemi is 20 — and he is 20 with a summer birthday. The maturity of a player usually hits at around 25. It’s difficult to know when that moment comes when you see a plateau, but there is no indication of a plateau at all at this point. In fact, the improvements are coming even more rapidly.
It’s going to be fun to see where this ends, which might just be higher than anyone has thought. A 55- to 60-point plateau has been the expectation, but if he keeps this progression, that 60 prediction is too conservative.
Connor McDavid is tearing apart the NHL. No one has really figured out how to stop him at all over the course of this season, he simply scores at will. It’s not possible for the Canadiens to continue to shut him down for all of the season, but for now, they are doing a better job than any other team.
The blueprint is this: take one of the best two-way lines in the league and get them to do what they do best, which is possess the puck. If McDavid is not owning the puck, then he has to defend.
Phillip Danault shows his greatest value with this type of assignment. During the first period, in the neutral zone, Danault was stuck like glue to McDavid not that concerned at all about the puck.
In addition to that, make sure that the defensive partnership facing McDavid is not the Canadiens third pairing. In the first period, the Canadiens were so effective against McDavid and Leon Draisaitl on the first line that they actually split the pair up in the second period, hoping one of the two could get going away from Danault’s line. It was a virtuoso performance for one of the best lines in the NHL in the analytic ‘goals expected’. They have been one of the top five lines all season long; this year they are dominant, with 16 goals for as a line 5-on-5 and only three goals against.
In fact, only one line has a better goal differential in the league and that’s Nathan MacKinnon’s line in Colorado with 23 goals for and nine goals against. That’s a plus-14 for MacKinnon and a plus-13 for Danault. Time for the line to get a little bit more respect.
Nick Suzuki had his best game in a while as well. Suzuki is best after he has had a chance to rest. Not sure if it is mental or physical fatigue, but the long grind of the NHL is his last obstacle. At the end of last season, he looked done with not even a play of note for games at a time. He was struggling as he hit a brick wall. However, after a rest, the bubble started and Suzuki was the best Habs forward in the playoffs.
Fast forward to the start of this season and Suzuki is flying again, averaging a point per game for the first 12 games, then a major struggle for 15 games dropping off drastically. Fast forward one more time to the beginning of the post-COVID break on Tuesday night as Suzuki starts on fire one more time. He had 11 days to rest and the rest did him good. For Suzuki to get to the next level, he has to keep going without hitting that wall. The grind of the NHL is extremely challenging. At the age of 20, it seems like a lot to a player facing grown men of strong physical stature. He must adapt.
Analyst Mike Johnson tweeted that the rest Suzuki needs is more emotional and mental. Johnson says it is difficult to get mentally up for every game and that comes with experience. The Canadiens finish the season with 25 games in 43 days. It is going to be interesting to see if Suzuki sags again after he feels the grind get him down.
One of these times, Suzuki has to make it to the same strong playing level at game 40, instead of slowing down at game 12. That will be the difference between him being a 75-point player and a 50-point player. It will be fun to watch.
This contest was so goat-free for Montreal that the goalie got a shutout and he isn’t even worth a mention. Carey Price stopped 16 shots and it’s hard to remember even one that was difficult.
This was Montreal’s best game of the season.
The American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket continued without difficulty last week while the Canadiens took care of their COVID-19 issues. The Rocket are the class of the Canadian Division this season, with only four regulation time losses in 20 games in the 2021 campaign. This is impressive, considering this Rocket team is about to get significantly better over the next seasons with the arrival of some high-quality defenders trying to break into the NHL. It’s expected that Jordan Harris, Kaiden Guhle, Jayden Struble, and Mattias Norlinder will all be arriving to strengthen this blue line significantly, before they then try to strengthen the Canadiens’ blue line.
The Rocket will already be adding Cole Caulfield to their lineup in a week as he completes his quarantine protocols, having arrived from the United States Monday. Caufield just completed the best scoring season this century in college hockey with 30 goals in 31 games. It’s a remarkable scoring run that has Caufield the expected unanimous choice for the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player.
The sad aspect of this season for Laval is that there has not been an announcement of a playoffs in the American Hockey League. It is not that they have been cancelled for certain, but that they have not been addressed. The last the league spoke on the matter was early February, when they said there were no plans yet. Insiders say they don’t see a playoffs, but it is a possibility, if they open their minds to it.
In America, the vaccine distribution is going extremely well, with half of the population already having received a dose. Cases are way down in the U.S. as a result, and fans have already been welcomed back into stadiums in many states. By the time the playoffs roll around, the situation will be even more in their favour as vaccine doses go up and cases go down.
A scenario that could work easily is that the Canadian clubs have a one-two match-up in Canada, before they leave the Canadian bubble and spend the rest of the playoffs in the United States to compete there. It would certainly be a statistical disadvantage to be on the road, but it would be an organizational advantage to have their top prospects continue to play important hockey.
Stay tuned. The more that time passes on this present trajectory, the more you should have confidence that Laval could be playing some playoff hockey.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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