The Montreal Canadiens have been one of the surprises of the young season with only one regulation time loss in four starts, including two wins over the Pittsburgh Penguins.
The game at the Bell Centre against the Detroit Red Wings Monday was all about Tomas Plekanec. It was a special night in his career as he played game 1000. Plekanec started out as a third-round draft choice, taken 71st overall. He wasn’t given much chance to make it, but he parlayed his work-ethic, and intelligence into a superb career.
While some focus was on game 1000 for Plekanec, the more important focus was on game five as the Habs tried to solidify their strong start against a Wings team that has struggled to start the year.
Most everyone for the first week of the season was in an uproar seemingly ready to end the career of Jonathan Drouin or trade him to anyone for a draft choice, if the Habs got lucky. The entire time, on my radar, the thinking was this is a player who is trying hard moves and that’s excellent. Skilled players are supposed to try to show what they can do. When you should be scared is when a high-talent player doesn’t want to participate anymore. Drouin wants the puck. He’s got energy in his stride. He believes in his ability to beat players directly with his stick and skating.
So it’s no surprise that Drouin is now finding his better self. He scored in the shootout on Saturday night against the Penguins, then early on Monday against the Wings, he earned a breakaway and had the stick knocked out of his hands. Drouin was awarded a penalty shot. Now considering when you have not scored yet on the season, there can be a little bit of butterflies to finally get going. But what we saw instead was a player completely in the moment without fear. Drouin skated over the blue line near the right-side boards to make the goalie Jimmy Howard move laterally, and then he fired blocker side just over the pad. It’s the hardest shot in hockey in close for a goalie to stop. It’s the dead zone and Drouin found it. Same shot twice in a row one-on-one as the shot duplicated the shootout against the Pens. Drouin’s going to be fine. He looks freer than he did last year. He’s thinking offence. Some players need to think offence and not worry about centre duties and the defence that comes with it. This move to the wing is absolutely what Drouin needs.
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Plekanec doesn’t have a lot of goals left in his stick, but it sure was nice for him to find one of the last goals in his 1000th game. Plekanec scored it not with a lightning shot or some gorgeous end-to-end rush, but with savvy. He scored in the same manner that he has done to make a career for himself — with his terrific hockey sense. He ended up on a clear advantage down the left side not being able to get a shot away, so he found himself behind the net where he did the Plekanec thing to do: he fired it off a Red Wings defender trying to get back into the play. The ricochet worked perfectly and Plekanec had his first goal of the year.
Good things happen when you charge the net and you then stay there. The Habs line of Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher, and Philip Danault kept possession over the blue line and then stumbled their way with it to the front of the net. They then simply overwhelmed the Red Wings with numbers. All three forwards were all over the crease area. It was Tatar who batted it out of the air for his third goal in two games. Tatar is the leading point getter on the Habs with three goals and four assists. For Tatar, apparently, what happens in Vegas, stays in Vegas. By contrast, Max Pacioretty has one goal this season. He has no assists and he is -3. Pacioretty can do better. Tatar already is — and a little reminder that he is only 27. He is hardly a player on the down slope. This may be a very hard trade for Vegas general manager George McPhee. He may never want to hear the name Tatar ever again. He acquired Tatar giving up a first, second, and third rounder. That’s three assets. He then didn’t like Tatar and wanted Pacioretty, so traded away another three assets in Tatar, first rounder Nick Suzuki and a second rounder. That’s three times two and that’s not how to manage effectively.
The line of Tatar, Danault and Gallagher is the best line on the team. It was Max Domi‘s line last week that was the best. If the best line can change from week to week, you might just find you have a pretty good hockey team. The pass from Tatar to Gallagher on the first goal of the second period was sublime. It was very sweet. It was a pass of only two feet but it changed everything making it an easy swipe for Gallagher’s third goal of the season.
It wasn’t a minute later and the Habs scored a fifth bringing the crowd to a frenzy. Again, it was sublime passing that left the defence mesmerized. Matthew Peca had a clean lane to shoot, but chose a cross-ice pass leaving Howard no chance. Charles Hudon with the goal and Howard with a seat on the bench to watch the rest of the night. These are not last year’s Habs.
It was the first night that Jesperi Kotkaniemi looked like he didn’t belong quite yet. Not to suggest that he was bad, but he didn’t create anything. Not an easy feat to be without a scoring chance or shining offensive moment when there were so many for the Canadiens. Not saying his path back to Finland or Laval is certain by any means, but that road being taken is starting to get some focus.
A flu is going through the locker room to start the season. It has hit only two so far, but these things can get out of hand when the players are in such close quarters with each other. Carey Price missed two starts with the virus. He is heathy now and was the back-up. Head Coach Claude Julien said that Antti Niemi was slated to start against the Wings anyway and Price had not skated in three days, so he felt Niemi was the more prepared goalie. Andrew Shaw came down with the flu as well and missed the game against the Red Wings. Peca played in Shaw’s spot on the wing.
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The Canadiens fans did the moment right when the PA announcer indicated that it was the 1000th game for Plekanec. The fans were standing as soon as Plekanec showed up on the giant scoreboard. And they stayed standing through the commercial break of two minutes. The Habs fans are so passionate and that means knowledgeable too. They knew that this was certainly well deserved and they were well aware it was coming.
There are a lot of years left on the contract of Karl Alzner. Four years and $18 million left on a player who can not get in this lineup and it’s hard to imagine that he will get in this lineup. There will have to be injuries, though perhaps Jordie Benn could falter with a little fatigue. The drama is not around when Alzner will play but what to do with him when players become healthy. Nicolas Deslauriers and Jacob De La Rose will be healthy soon and when they are, it’s difficult to imagine that Alzner will stay up in Montreal. Nikita Scherbak is also in the mix to stay up and not be lost on waivers. It’s looking more and more like Alzner will go to Laval with the improved play of Benn and Xavier Ouellet.