The gruelling schedule continues for the Montreal Canadiens, who face three opponents: Health, fatigue, and the other team.
The other team on Friday night was the Winnipeg Jets, who lost their sixth straight contest as Montreal came from 3-1 down to score four unanswered to win 5-3.
It’s easy to see that the learning curve is taking a nice turn upwards for Cole Caufield.
In only his third contest, Caufield played his best game by a big margin. The worry was that he would not be up to it defensively because of his size. That is not happening at all. In the first two periods, Caufield was strong offensively and dominated play with two different centres, Jake Evans and Nick Suzuki, who scored twice for four goals in his last four games.
The attempts were 14 to 2 in favour of Caufield when he was on ice in the opening 40 minutes. Caufield led the team with an expected goal percentage of 98.6. He also led the team in Corsi with an 85 percent. These are phenomenal numbers in an evenly-played game. Caufield also hit the post in the second period.
Any worry that he couldn’t carry the play had to have been mostly dispelled in this one. In fact, Caufield has had strong analytics playing most of his shifts in comfortable places on attack through the first three games.
Caufield has been able to show that he can fight for space well in front of the net at times, and then at other times he has been able to search for dead zones to be alone to receive a pass. It was a night with terrific promise for Caufield.
Nothing at all has said that he can’t do this. The goals will come. The worry was moreso that only goals would be there, but the overall play would be weak. It’s been the opposite of that. It’s an excellent turn of events in an unexpected fashion. Yes, of course, goals already would be great, but that he shows he can play comfortably in this league is the long-run target.
He also seemed to enjoy playing with the younger players and therefore not feeling as if had to honour their experience, instead of just instinctively doing what he knows is his best play. Evans had another terrific contest as he complemented Artturi Lehkonen on the Caufield line.
It will come for the young Caufield. He has not earned a point yet, but he has earned the right to play more minutes. He also should be earning the trust of his head coach that he can be relied upon in a close game. He has to be because the best way to feel calm that your young player isn’t going to make a defensive mistake is if he is in the attacking zone all of the time.
So far, so very good for the Hobey Baker Award winner.
There are seasons that the GM is trying so hard to make improvements to the squad he ends up costing the club its better line-up, and its overall chemistry. This season, Marc Bergevin acquired Jon Merrill who has been adequate, Eric Staal who has taken too much ice away from Jake Evans, and Erik Gustafsson who is struggling to make good defensive plays.
All in all, it’s not apparent the moves improved the squad. Merrill has not been better than Brett Kulak? It might be that the head coach is trying to make his GM look good, meaning one of the better defenders this year Kulak can’t get in the line-up. What metric is there that shows Gustafsson is better than Kulak? Does it unsettle the room when Kulak can’t get on the ice after playing well the entire season?
This is very much like the regrettable 2017 trading deadline as a great Habs team lost its chemistry when three players were acquired. All failed dramatically in the playoffs. Dwight King was slower than a turtle. Steve Ott tried to create havoc, but ended up destabilizing the middle. Andreas Martinsen was a big body who couldn’t get to any pucks. It was painful how terrible they were.
After those abysmal playoffs, all three players barely played another game in their NHL careers. It was horrific. Ott flat out retired after those playoffs. King went straight to Russia and then Austria. Martinsen had 33 games left in his NHL career scoring twice. Those three players were the hopes for the GM to get a strong team to the promised land. Bergevin shopped in the bargain bin, and got the bin instead, but no bargains.
This year, same thing. Three players, who, even when they are having a better night, are not moving the needle.
This organization feels like the GM is not only calling the shots in his GM job, but that he is also calling the shots in the other jobs too.
The system stays the same, the utilization stays the same, the hierarchy stays the same regardless of whom is the head coach. It’s almost like the real head coach is the GM.
Seasons pass, but the seasons all look the same: three coaches get off to great starts to the season, and three coaches watch those seasons turn sour. Three coaches use the players exactly the same, as if they were all clones of each other.
It feels like time for someone to take charge here at the coach position with the ability to do something completely different. This script has been tried over and over again. Taylor Hall fetched a second rounder. Sam Bennett fetched a second rounder.
According to Stephane Waite after he was fired, Bergevin said to him that Bergevin felt that his job was on the line. If that’s so, wasn’t Taylor Hall worth a second to save his job.
Same script. All of it, in every single facet. It’s difficult to think of even one way that any of this feels new.
The competitive integrity at the end of this season is compromised. There is no way around it. The Canadiens are limping to the finish line because they are literally limping. The injuries and fatigue are accruing as they naturally would when a player is asked to go at a four games in seven nights pace for five weeks.
This schedule is unheard of in hockey, a result of the COVID-19 scare that took the Canadiens out of action for 11 days. The schedule got compressed, and that had to happen, but what did not have to happen is for that to have caused so much loss of competitive integrity.
If it had to get compressed for one team, then it should have gotten compressed for all. Or conversely, if it had to get expanded for one team, then it had to get expanded for all, so there was fairness between clubs.
The best example is the Calgary Flames versus the competition as they try to pull off a tremendous comeback to grab the last playoff spot, but how tremendous will it be when they are rested and their competition is exhausted?
The Flames will play seven games the rest of the season in 20 nights. This is quite close to a game every three nights and is actually more calm than a regular schedule in a non-COVID year. In fact, this is as positive a schedule with spacing between games as the NHL has ever seen. This is manna from heaven for the Flames, with a game every three nights. They will be the more rested club whoever they play.
Now let’s contrast that with the two clubs that the Flames are fighting with for that final playoff spot — the two teams with COVID-19 issues.
The Canadiens will play eight games in their last 13 days. This is ridiculous by comparison. There is no way that Montreal will be able to field anything close to a healthy line-up, or a rested line-up. Having your skating legs is absolutely vital to succeeding at this level. The Canadiens have a complete dud every second game right now, and you can see it right from the first five minutes that they have nothing energy-wise — that they are spent.
The Canadiens’ schedule looks like a Cancun vacation, though, compared to the Vancouver Canucks schedule. How is Vancouver supposed to make a playoff push with this schedule? Add that they have all recently had COVID-19 that knocked them hard, and this is a complete farce of a schedule.
The Canucks have 19 games in their last 31 days. Never in the history of the National Hockey League has a player been asked to play this type of schedule. They complete this enervating 31-day run with four games against the Flames who will have been waiting in hopes of sweeping all the games to take the final playoff spot.
What to do about this? Nothing.
It promised to be unfair for a handful of teams before the season began and there is no question it is. All you can do is survive it with the knowledge that it can only get better than this embarrassment for the league.
Here’s the silver lining: If the Canadiens can hold on to this playoff spot, like all of the other playoff teams, they will have a one week to 10-day break to get healthy and rested again to face a Maple Leafs team that will then get a different opponent than the exhausted one they played against four times in the last two weeks of the year.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.