Still Talkin’ Habs: Canadiens depth shines in 4-1 win over Sens

Montreal Canadiens' Brendan Gallagher (11) celebrates a goal against the Ottawa Senators as he skates past the bench during third period NHL action in Ottawa on Thursday, April 1, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Sean Kilpatrick

Team depth and attention to detail were on display last night as the Montreal Canadiens won their third straight game, beating the Ottawa Senators 4-1.

The Habs continued to solidify their hold on the fourth and final spot in the NHL’s North division and stretched their lead to six points over the Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks with four games in hand on each.

À la prochaine, Ottawa! ✌️

See you later, Ottawa!#GoHabsGo pic.twitter.com/vp1WAYtz65

— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) April 2, 2021

General manager Marc Bergevin said during the team’s layoff due to COVID that despite the Canadiens having an advantage over their competitors in the games played department, it would mean nothing if his team didn’t capitalize and win those games in hand.

What must be most encouraging for Bergevin is that the strength of the squad that he touted before the season has banked the Canadiens four points in back-to-back wins, and his most recent work may just be the reason why.

You may not have noticed but the Habs are going through their first significant injury hurdle of the season.

Their top goal scorer Tyler Toffoli continues to work his way back from a lower body injury. The 18-goal winger has plummeted down the league’s goal scoring charts into the measly eight spot while he’s been out. Joel Armia, their fourth leading goal scorer last season, is on the NHL’s COVID list until at least Sunday. Defenceman Ben Chiarot, pillar of the top-pairing last year, has been out for three weeks with a fractured hand and will most likely not return until late April, if then.

Last season those three injuries would have been filled by players that might have been trusted to take a shift without hurting the team defensively, but would certainly not have been expected to contribute with a goal or two. Through 120 minutes of the team’s second half of the season the depth players on the Canadiens roster have earned the team two pretty important wins.

On Tuesday against the Oilers it was Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron that stepped up to secure the victory. Both players continued to play well last night but were joined by Jake Evans and Corey Perry in giving the team a proper push from their bottom six.

Evans in particular played probably his best game as a member of the Habs and it’s not hard to see the reason why he and the other players on the third and fourth lines have elevated their game.

“You think about it a little bit but for me it was just playing my game, playing hard and getting a little bit of that confidence back,” said Evans when he was asked whether the club’s acquisition of centerman Eric Staal late last week has been on his mind. "I didn’t love the way I was playing before that so to get that fresh start and trying to play hard and play well is what I was trying to do.”

Evans is in his first full season in the league so perhaps he did need the break the Habs recently had, but it’s more likely that the internal competition that has been fostered by Bergevin and interim head coach Dominique Ducharme is starting to bear fruit on the scoresheet.

Fans, media and coaches alike talk about the benefits of having an environment where players are pushing their teammates for spots in the lineup.

Usually it is young players like Ryan Poehling or Jesse Ylonen who threaten those veteran’s positions. To their credit both of those guys have performed well enough down in Laval to have likely earned a call-up in a normal season.

Combine the push from youth down on the farm with veterans itching to play in the taxi squad and you have probably the most competitive environment for places these players have ever seen at the pro level.

Add top prospect Cole Caufield and triple gold club member Staal to the mix and it sends a clear message: Play your best or you may not be playing for long.

Perry, Byron, Lehkonen and Evans have all watched games from the press box this season. Let’s not even talk about what Michael Frolik has had to go through up until now. The Canadiens now have between eight to 10 players competing for five spots on the bottom two lines. It’s the clichéd ‘good problem to have’ for Ducharme. We’ll see if they continue to cause him selection headaches down the stretch.

“I’ve played behind a few good teams in the past, I’ve been very fortunate,” said goaltender Jake Allen last night, speaking of depth. “Tonight felt like I was behind one of those really good teams again… I think it’s obviously taken some time to buy into a system that (Ducharme’s) put into place. I’ve been through coaching changes. It takes a couple weeks, a month and I think things are starting to click and everyone’s really buying in.”

The Habs didn’t trade chances with the Senators last night. They didn’t sit back either. The Canadiens just did the things that successful teams do to minimize mistakes.

Defencemen found the right outlet in their zone to break out with control. The team’s passing was crisp which didn’t create turnovers and odd-man rushes in the neutral zone. The Habs moved up the ice as a unit, supporting each other offensively. That support was also present defensively on the backcheck. Combine that with sustained effort in all three zones and you get a pretty straightforward victory over a team that has caused the Canadiens problems all year long.

With the advantage they already hold in the standings and their game rounding into form at the right time, if the Canadiens can rely on their depth to chip in with goals they will be a formidable opponent down the stretch as they look to earn their first true playoff berth in four years.

Player Ratings

Goaltender

Jake Allen – 9/10

Deserved the shutout but the hockey gods thought otherwise. Did his best work the first 10 minutes of the game when his teammates were settling into the game, most memorably a slot stop in tight on Bishop. Robbed Tkachuk with his stick in the second and then cruised the rest of the way. Finally got the run support he’s been missing of late as he picked up his first win in six starts.

Defencemen

Shea Weber – 7/10

The captain continued to look solid defensively since the layoff. Kept the Senators to the outside in his zone and limited his turnovers. Solid on the penalty kill. Struggled mightily on the powerplay as his indecision with the puck against an aggressive Senators penalty kill made it difficult for his wave to get much going. But did well shutting down the opposition which was good enough last night.

Joel Edmundson – 8/10

Gets the rating for his distribution last night. Was extremely comfortable with the puck on his stick, trusting his outlet right in front of the net to beat the Senators forecheck. It’s a high-risk play but he was confident enough to make it multiple times last night. Like his partner did well defensively and boxing out the Senators. Not much he could have done on Brown’s shutout buster as it bounced onto his stick off the end boards.

Jeff Petry – 7/10

Led Habs defencemen in ice time. For the second straight game didn’t have many obvious opportunities to do much offensively. Looked impressive running things on the second wave of the powerplay. His passing was precise and he defended well with his skating. A quiet but solid performance.

Brett Kulak – 7/10

One of the quieter nights from the frequently active blueliner. Led the boys on the back end in shots on goal with four. Like the rest of his defensive mates broke the puck out well and never put his team in trouble.

Alexander Romanov – 6/10

Continued to build his partnership with Mete but didn’t impact the game as much as he usually does. If Weber continues to turn the puck over on the man advantage he’s the obvious candidate to replace him. Not nearly as physical last night. Had a few forays forward but nothing really came of them. Decent.

Victor Mete – 7/10

Like his partner Romanov moved the puck well and didn’t do anything to hurt himself or the team. Quietly solid for the majority of the night. Held the puck in really well and then made a smart pass to Evans in the lead up to Perry’s goal, which effectively killed off the game. Such a positive to watch him settle into a role in the lineup.

Forwards

Phillip Danault – 8/10

Johnny on the spot for his goal that got the team off and running. Made a terrific one touch pass to Tatar to break out with speed in the lead up to it. He and his linemates were the usual forechecking monsters that they are. Fantastic pass to Gallagher for his goal. 60 percent on faceoffs as well. Even made some solid plays on the powerplay. His line has been the catalyst for the team’s resurgence of late.

Tomas Tatar – 8/10

Picked up two assists on the night doing the grunt work on Gallagher and Danault’s goals. If he can keep up this level of play with his linemates the rest of the season the Habs might have no choice but to re-sign him. Kept thing ticking on his wave of the powerplay. Cycled the Sens to death as well.

Brendan Gallagher – 8/10

What more can anyone say about this guy? He and his linemates are playing their best hockey of the season and his leadership has been crucial during the team’s turnaround. Another goal and an assist, he has quietly surpassed Josh Anderson for second on the team in goals. Sets the standard.

Nick Suzuki – 6/10

He continues to build back his game but didn’t have the same jump that he did on Tuesday night. Led the team in shots on goal with five. Didn’t do much at even strength but one of the few on his wave to look good on the powerplay. His faceoff prowess is a serious problem. 20 percent is just not good enough. Liked the way he tracked back defensively though.

Jonathan Drouin – 6/10

Wasn’t bad but wasn’t able to get many offensive chances which is kind of what he’s out there for. One thing that continues to impress is his battle level. Doesn’t necessarily dominate physically but with his hand-eye coordination is able to cut off pucks and create turnovers. Always engaged, even when he doesn’t do much, like last night.

Josh Anderson – 6/10

Like his linemates had issues getting to the inside to really threaten the Senators goal. Hit the post with a seeing-eye wrister but other than that, not much. Led the forwards with four hits and did enjoy playing the physical part as he threw a couple board rumbling ones. Also the most used forward on the night as he looks primed for a break out after five games without a point.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 7/10

Got away with a brutal turnover early that was turned away by Allen. Where Suzuki shone at the start of the season Kotkaniemi is growing into an influential figure at the midway point. He’s starting to realize that he can dominate the game physically. Won multiple battles competing for a loose puck and held off those who tried to remove it from him. Looks so confident on the powerplay. More than 50 per cent on faceoffs as well.

Artturi Lehkonen – 7/10

The forechecking demon continued to show off his skills last night. At even strength turned the puck over deep in the Senators end. On the penalty kill harassed the Sens in the neutral zone and in his own end. It was he who forced the turnover that led to Byron’s shorthanded goal. Took the penalty that led to Brown’s goal which will surely bug him. But was all effort again for his teammates.

Paul Byron – 7/10

What a cool finish for his goal after some terrific work from Evans, having the presence of mind to take a moment and put his backhand top cheddar. Wasn’t necessarily as influential as his linemates but still did some decent work at even strength. Always willing to pressure forwards from behind as they head up ice.

Jake Evans – 8/10

Didn’t play much but packed a lot of good into those almost 12 minutes of ice time. Singlehandedly made Byron’s goal happen, first displaying deking out the Sens defender, almost beat Gustafsson with a shot of his own, tracked down the puck and showed off his skill once again with his spin around pass for Byron in the slot. Fed off that confidence and pushed the pace on the forecheck. Had the poise to hold on to the puck for a split second more before centering the puck to Perry for his goal. Best game as a Hab so far.

Corey Perry – 7/10

The Canadiens most used forward on the powerplay. Barely even a celebration after scoring his seventh goal of the season, which he predictably potted in from a foot away from the net. Even with all the competition for spots in the lineup he is virtually irreplaceable on the fourth line. Where would this team be without him?

Michael Frolik – 5/10

More minutes for him to continue to round into form. Pretty quiet game from him in all respects. Hasn’t been given a chance on the penalty kill as of yet. Likely headed back to the taxi squad as the team gets healthy again. Hopefully he can make an impression Saturday night.

Coach

Dominique Ducharme – 8/10

Might be time to reconsider Weber’s usage on the powerplay. Other than that hard to complain about much from last night. Reuniting the Danault line has been a stroke of genius. Rest of the lines and pairings are working out well. Turning back to Allen worked out as well. Continues to impress.

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