Still Talkin’ Habs: Canadiens don’t flinch in 5-3 win over Jets

Montreal Canadiens' Phillip Danault handles a rebound off Winnipeg Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck during first period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Friday, April 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

The shorthanded Montreal Canadiens dug deep and came back twice to beat the Winnipeg Jets 5-3 to reassure themselves that they can be a good hockey team.

When they choose to be.

Defenseman Ben Chiarot called the win a “lesson” that the team could look back on through their final seven games and into the playoffs, which look much likelier now after last night’s pivotal win.

Although it’s tough to argue with Chiarot after arguably one of his better games of the season, certainly his best since he returned from a fractured hand, lesson just seems too stern a word. There’s a weight to it. Reference point seems a more apt term to describe what the Habs can take from their performance going forward.

Nick Suzuki a mené la charge ce soir. ��

Nick Suzuki took over tonight. #GoHabsGo | @CasinoMontreal pic.twitter.com/wnhkV2HUqd

— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) May 1, 2021

The Canadiens coaching staff learned that they should continue to put more faith in their young players.

The standout player was obviously Nick Suzuki, whose power play goal sealed the deal with under five minutes left in the third period. Going into last night’s game, he was the team’s point leader in the month of April with 10 in 16 games. Which is more of an indictment of the team’s offensive struggles than his own game over the last couple of weeks.

But last night was the climax of Suzuki’s recent good play of late. He was simply unplayable at times. Yes, the Jets blueline is clearly in free fall right now and they miss Adam Lowry and Nikolaj Ehlers up front. But the Habs young centreman shined brightest against likely the deepest center ice unit in the North division. Suzuki has stepped up over the last week and seems to be rounding into form at the most crucial point of the season for his team.

Montreal Canadiens' Nick Suzuki celebrates his goal against the Winnipeg Jets with teammate Jeff Petry during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Friday, April 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Interim head coach Dominique Ducharme’s faith in Suzuki has rarely wavered since he was given the job. Based on last night’s performance, three rookies should have earned some measure of trust from their coach going forward, and that shouldn’t change once certain veterans return to the lineup.

On the back end, Alexander Romanov may have been responsible for some poor transition coverage for two of the Jets goals, but he made up for it going forward.

The hallmark of the Habs recent struggles has been an inability to break out of their own zone with control, getting stuck along the boards in their end for long stretches. That didn’t happen against Winnipeg and the Russian rookie was a big part of that. He continued to make short, decisive passes to forwards coming deep. Romanov’s game seemed to even rub off on Chiarot and both blueliners looked confident making moves in the Jets' zone.

Up front, both Cole Caufield and Jake Evans reminded Habs fans that the team’s identity is supposed to be speed. Whether together or apart, both players made a substantial impact on the game in limited minutes. Caufield looked dynamic, particularly on a lengthy shift in the second period where he should have scored his first NHL goal. He was more willing to get inside and it nearly paid off multiple times. Evans continued his strong run of play with flashes of underrated skill, relentless work and stubborn forechecking. Their line with Artturi Lehkonen generated so much momentum for the rest of the team to feast upon.

To be fair to the Habs veterans, there were very few players on the team that didn’t raise their game to another level last night. It may seem rather simple to acknowledge but the Canadiens have rarely had a game where multiple lines or frankly even several players have looked consistently dangerous for a full 60 minutes, and they did so despite falling behind multiple times to the Jets.

It was really the first time in a while that, despite going down two goals, there wasn’t a sense of panic from the team. The players responded after each Jets goal with an emphatic shift to wrestle back momentum and keep their game on track.

Was last night an indictment of captain Shea Weber’s leadership, after he was forced to miss the game due to an upper body injury? Not necessarily. But it was refreshing to see the blueline not struggle so mightily to beat the forecheck in their zone and then be the extra option in attack. It’s been pretty obvious to most that not having an effective puck mover on each line has been a problem for the team. Hopefully last night’s emphatic display will give Ducharme empirical proof that he should permanently alter his thinking on the back end.

Last night was the blueprint for how the Habs should play the rest of the regular season as they exorcised several of their in-game demons versus the Jets. Another game like that against Ottawa tonight and they can officially put the Calgary Flames and the 2021 regular season in their rear-view mirror.

Player Ratings

Goaltender

Jake Allen – 7/10

Was made to look silly on Lewis’ second of the game as he got caught cheating on a 2-on-1 trying to play the pass instead of the shot. Didn’t look as confident in the net the first forty minutes. But raised his level in the third as the Jets pushed especially the final five minutes once the Habs had taken the lead. Fought off some difficult shots and didn’t allow any greasy rebounds.

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen makes a save against the Winnipeg Jets during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Friday, April 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Defencemen

Ben Chiarot – 8/10

His best performance in quite some time while playing his offside with a new defensive partner. Skated really well not just in his own zone but perhaps more importantly between the bluelines and in the Jets' zone. Passing wasn’t a problem and supported the attack well. Not overly physical but didn’t need to be as he made short, quick passes to relieve any kind of pressure. Picked up a primary assist on Lehkonen’s goal as well. Very encouraging.

Alexander Romanov – 8/10

Yes, his gap control and awareness weren’t exactly great on both Stastny’s goal and Lewis’ first. But looked comfortable in a top four role and most importantly didn’t let those mistakes derail his game. Plays with so much confidence it must rub off on his teammates when he’s feeling it. Didn’t exactly have a standout night offensively but was always available as an option and outlet either as the trailer or an overload option. Caused the Jets fits with his movement in the offensive zone. Solid in his own zone. Another leap in the right direction.

Jeff Petry – 7/10

Had another one of those games where he made you question some of the decisions he made with the puck in his own end. Was extremely active offensively in the first period and deserved a goal after ringing a shot off the post. Had some iffy moments defensively in the second but settled down in the third and played 20 minutes of error-free hockey. Primary assist for Suzuki’s game-winner on the power play.

Joel Edmundson – 7/10

Tell me if you’ve heard this before: Wasn’t particularly noticeable and it felt so good. Had two hits on the night with three blocks and no shots on goal. That’s no problem whatsoever. Was aggressive on the penalty kill and physically disruptive at even strength. Looked faster on his skates as well. Twenty minutes of near error-free hockey is exactly what the doctor ordered.

Jon Merrill – 7/10

Didn’t play all that much but thought he did a good job, as his coach would say, killing the play. No egregious turnovers and kept it extremely simple in his own end, but that’s all the team is expecting of him: win your one-on-one battles and get the puck out of the zone. Found Caufield on a beautiful pass as he rounded the net but just put it off the side netting.

Erik Gustfasson – 7/10

Could have worn the goat horns had the Habs lost for losing his head and over skating the puck which led directly to Lewis’ second of the game. Before that he had a couple hairy moments in his own zone but supported the attack well and almost got an opportunity or two filling into the high slot in the Jets zone. Moved the puck well on the power play as well. Some mistakes, yes, but more good than bad.

Forwards

Nick Suzuki – 9/10

Cometh the hour, cometh the man. Was a part of everything that went well for his team offensively. Played with that little bit of swagger, especially on the power play. Couldn’t help laughing that his shooting mishap in the slot ended up right on the stick of Armia for his goal. Johnny on the spot for his first and picked the corner for the game-winner. In between should have had at least another assist based on all the room and plays he was making. Has really elevated his game the past week or so when his team has needed it most and capped with last night’s man of the match performance.

Tyler Toffoli – 7/10

Only a man like Josh Anderson with seven more years left on his contract would have not touched that empty net bound goal. If that’s Phillip Danault he’s touching that one into the net. His 26th goal of the season aside he was solid last night. Had a couple shifts in the second where he somehow dominated the puck in the offensive zone despite looking like one of the slower guys out there. Great pass to Suzuki in the slot to set up the play that led to Armia’s goal. Where would this team be without him?

Joel Armia – 8/10

Ducharme said post-game that he believes he might have escaped a more severe injury after getting pasted from behind in the offensive zone. Hopefully not another concussion for the big forward. Just had one of those nights where he physically dominated the puck and made the decision that no one was going to take it off of him. Might not score a more comical goal than the one he squeezed through Hellebuyck’s legs. Led the team with five shots on goal and controlled play in the offensive zone. Surgical again with his stick. One of those games where you think the team needs to sign him. Until next game.

Phillip Danault – 6/10

Gets the rating purely for keeping Scheifele, Stastny, Wheeler and company off the scoresheet. Didn’t particularly like his game offensively as his lack of skill didn’t particularly compliment Kotkaniemi or Anderson very well. Lost some important faceoffs on the penalty kill and then failed to clear the puck multiple times as well. But did just about enough to get the job done and again held the Jets best players to very little offensively.

Josh Anderson – 7/10

Missed a plethora of chances in the first period that had him shaking his head multiple times. Wasn’t his usual bull-in-a-china-shop self but dominated the puck physically down low in the offensive zone and created space for both he and his linemates. Was always willing and able to backcheck hard. Not overly physical but didn’t really need to be.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 6/10

Thought he was solid but his best chance of the night was a wrister in the first from just right of the slot that he just missed wide. Was the most physical player on his line but wasn’t exactly unleashed offensively on the wing. Had some decent zone time and didn’t play poorly whatsoever. But looked unsure at times as to how to affect the game from his left-wing position. Back to center as soon as possible please.

Jake Evans – 8/10

He cannot be contained! His line played some of the most memorable hockey we’ve seen in a while from three guys who didn’t play over 12 minutes. Turned the puck over multiple times in the offensive and neutral zones. Played with a ton of confidence offensively and never cheated when it came to effort. His last couple of games it has been he who has filled the Gallagher hole on this team. Drew an early penalty fighting through multiple checks and just kept buzzing from there. Picked up the secondary assist on Lehkonen’s goal and 50 percent on faceoffs. It’s a great story to watch him now thrive at the NHL level.

Cole Caufield – 8/10

That first goal is just around the corner folks. Would not surprise if it came tonight in Ottawa. Had one shift in the second where he, Suzuki and Toffoli simply dominated the Jets in their zone. Put a backhand off the post in what was the closest of his numerous chances. Took a couple chances getting into the dirty areas in front of Hellebuyck and was nearly rewarded. Continues to pass the puck off on the power play, something that should come in time with more confidence. But was always willing to shoot at even strength and tried to make something happen each time he was out there. His best game in the league to date.

Artturi Lehkonen – 8/10

Led the team with five hits. Forechecked the Jets into submission, and didn’t miss the net on his shot, an inch-perfect goal that got the Habs right back into the game after going down 3-1. It’s been said over and over again but it’s nice to see him get rewarded with a goal for all of the hard work he does on a nightly basis. He and his linemates played to the identity of what the team should be and were rewarded for it. Hopefully will be rewarded with more ice time tonight against Ottawa.

Eric Staal – 6/10

Much better from him in the first period as he should have got at least an assist for several great passes to set up teammates, most noticeably Frolik in the slot. Was the team’s best faceoff man at 57 per cent. Faded as the game wore on but seemed to have more jump than we’ve seen of late.

Corey Perry – 6/10

Thought his skating was much improved from his last couple of games. Didn’t feel like he did all that much offensively although his line did enjoy some prolonged cycling periods in the Jets zone. Picked up a secondary assist on Suzuki’s game-winner but where he really did his job was taking away Hellbuyck’s eyes in front of the net. The guy plays winning hockey.

Michael Frolik – 6/10

Best game as a Hab in that you noticed him when he was on the ice. Not sure how he didn’t score after a sweet feed from Staal left him all alone in the slot in the first period. But did some good work down low in the Jets zone and backchecked hard to disrupt Winnipeg going the other way. Just a well-rounded game.

Coach

Dominique Ducharme – 8/10

The rating could be even higher if he learns the valuable lessons last night’s win taught him. Credit is due because the newly cobbled together lines all seemed to work last night except for maybe Danault, Kotkaniemi and Anderson. His defensive pairings didn’t spend much time in their zone and joined not only the rush but the attack in the Jets zone. Two goals on the power play. Multiple comebacks. Last night felt like not only a turning point but a breath of fresh air for the group. Will they match the standard they set against Winnipeg tonight against Ottawa and grab hold of their playoff destiny? Hopefully.

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