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Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens hit the road, shade Calgary Flames 2-1

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The Montreal Canadiens started a four-game road trip in Calgary on Thursday night. The trip also includes stops in Edmonton, Vancouver and Seattle.

All four are tough matches, with Vancouver the only opposition that is under .500 on the year.

The Flames were the better club but they got goalied by Jake Allen as the Canadiens won 2-1.

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Fans have been hoping to see Juraj Slafkovsky get stronger linemates, believing that he was not getting a chance to show his talents on the fourth line. It’s not always so easy for a head coach who has to make sure that he keeps the room healthy, so there is a hierarchy to consider.

However, when there are injuries, the decision gets easy. With Brendan Gallagher and Mike Hoffman out, and Rem Pitlick not able to get to Calgary in time, Slafkovsky had to bump up to the second line while Chris Wideman played on the fourth line.

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On the first shift with Sean Monahan and Josh Anderson, it took only 13 seconds for Slafkovsky to make the fans happy. Monahan was the first forward on the forecheck and forced the turnover. With the goalie Jacob Markstrom out for a swim, Slafkovsky slid it into a wide-open net for his fourth of the season.

It was the fastest goal for the Canadiens from the start of a game since 2010, when Brian Gionta scored after 11 seconds.

Monahan got an assist on the goal. Credit to Head Coach Martin St. Louis as well for putting Monahan on for the first shift in his return to Calgary. He’s a special coach and he understood it was a special moment.

In the second period, the new second line continued to shine. Slafkovsky almost got a second goal as he earned a breakaway with terrific straightaway speed. He hit the post on the far side after beating Markstrom.

More impressive than the shot, though, was that he outpaced Rasmus Andersson. The Flames defender is known for his speed and Slafkovsky took him easily. When you have a 6-foot-4-inch player at 230 pounds also carrying speed, you have a player.

The second line was the best line on the night. Slafkovsky may have found a home for a while with Monahan and Anderson.

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In the third frame, Monahan had a second assist as he passed to Nick Suzuki who crossed the ice to Cole Caufield in his one-timer position. He ripped it upstairs with yet another perfect shot — Caufield’s 13th of the season in his 23rd game. He is on pace for 46 on the season.

The game was dominated by the Flames but the Canadiens won thanks to a terrific performance from Jake Allen. The shots on goal were 46-19 Calgary. Allen faced and stopped all 21 in the third period. Allen felt he had something to prove after a terrible November and he did.

Sometimes the goalie steals one. This one was stolen.

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The Canadiens power play moved to one in the last 18 with a dismal second period effort. The power play is 31st in the league. It should be better with talented forwards like Kirby Dach, Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. They are having excellent seasons and it would be expected that their success would translate with an extra man on the ice.

Here’s the issue, though, and there aren’t too many who don’t know it: The three names mentioned are all forwards. The issue is the same issue that has plagued the power play for five years. The club does not have a power play quarterback.

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A QB breaks down the lanes of the defenders, changes angles, finds passes and threads them. A QB is creative. It isn’t a shot that decides it, it’s the series of passes and vision.

Remember the power plays that did work in Montreal? What did they all have? They had Andrei Markov. Sometimes he was with Sheldon Sourly, or perhaps PK Subban. Markov’s mates changed over his long career, but he was the constant when the Canadiens power play was good.

In fact, the forwards didn’t matter all that much. They weren’t all that; not Connor McDavid or anything. They were simply good players: Saku Koivu, Alex Kovalev, Richard Zednik, Brian Gionta. That list of forwards isn’t superior to this new list up front.

However, there is no Andrei Markov; nor is there anyone even close to Markov. Mike Matheson is a good player. Occasionally, they try a forward on the point like Mike Hoffman. Sometimes they try five forwards.

It doesn’t matter. Nothing is going to work until they have the talent there to make it work. So many people point to the power play coach, but they’ve gone through a lot of coaches. None of them have worked. None of them have had Markov.

There is a young man playing defence at Boston University as a freshman who has won the rookie of the week twice and the player of the week another time. In fact, Lane Hutson has been a college player of the week in some capacity every week that the season has been played.

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Hutson’s numbers are on pace for a freshman in his draft plus one season that equals the best campaign for a defencmean since 1986 when Brian Leetch had 1.25 points per game. The best numbers in 36 years. Imagine that.

Hutson has put up these lofty numbers on the second power play unit. He hasn’t even had the best players with him, except for last weekend’s games when the head coach finally decided he better get the guy scoring all the points and making all the plays with his best.

Lane Hutson is a unicorn. His vision and ability to dance away from traffic and create opportunities is unseen before at the college level.  He’s small, though, and the challenge is real that he may not be big enough for the NHL.

If Hutson is big enough, his ceiling is extremely high. If he can’t handle the physicality of the league, his floor is not even in the NHL. Never has there been a player with a gap as wide between ceiling and floor as Hutson.

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If he can reach the ceiling, the Canadiens will finally have a good power play when he arrives to quarterback it. Hutson is the Markov that has been missing.

Read more: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens beat Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 in shootout

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Sean Monahan was drafted sixth overall by the Calgary Flames in 2013. He did something unusual for a sixth pick that fall. He made the National Hockey League straight out of the draft.

After that, he spent nine seasons for Calgary. The last two years were the worst two after getting over-30 goals three times in the first seven. The reason was he could barely walk and the game was passing him by because of hip pain.

Monahan needed hip surgeries, but the Flames had seen enough and opted to move him as a salary dump to Montreal. The Canadiens received a first-round draft choice, and may receive another this spring because Monahan is healthy and loving hockey again.

At 28 years of age, Monahan is resurrecting his game in Montreal, but he hasn’t forgotten Calgary. In a touching moment in the morning, Monahan was asked what he wanted to say to Flames fans as he made his return to Alberta on Thursday night. Holding back tears, Monahan started his answer with,”Just thank you”.

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He went on to explain how wonderful Calgary had accepted him over the years. His lip was quivering and he had to cut his answer short for fear of getting too emotional.

During the game, Monahan received a rousing standing ovation for his time in Calgary. It isn’t often that the opposition is loved so well when they return. It was heartfelt from Flames fans. They stayed standing for almost a minute with Monahan raising his stick in salute.

The body always breaks down eventually in pro sports. This is as known as death and taxes. But for now, Monahan is one of the best feel-good stories of the year. Modern medicine has given a great player a second chance to shine, and he is seizing it with joy and gratitude.

It is the best of sports.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on after each Canadiens game