Still Talkin’ Habs: Canadiens start fast and cruise past hapless Oilers 4-0

Montreal Canadiens' Jake Evans faces off against Edmonton Oilers' Jujhar Khaira during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal on Tuesday, March 30, 2021. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

The Montreal Canadiens surprised their fans, their opponents and likely even themselves as they shut out the Edmonton Oilers 4-0 last night in their first game back after an unplanned week-long break due to COVID-19.

Sports were never going to be immune from the seemingly endless, unpredictable and inescapable reality we are all living through. It’s rather surprising that it took just a little more than half the season for the NHL’s all-Canadian North division to be forced to deal with the pandemic that has touched every aspect of our lives.

For that reason, even the most assured of clairvoyants would have struggled to predict what version of the Habs would show up last night to face Conor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and the Edmonton Oilers.

The Canadiens practiced just once in eight days and were unable to train at the team’s practice facility in Brossard.

Elite athletes are creatures of habit, their lives constantly regimented, and it would have been almost expected for the Habs to struggle early on as they shook the rust off their skates.

That narrative was blown out of the water within 18 seconds as Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s goal set the tone for his teammates for the rest of the game. The first period was complete and utter dominance from the home team that had them heading into the first intermission with a comfortable 3-0 lead.

No chance there is a conclusive enough video angle to overturn the call on the ice. Good goal for Kotkaniemi. Heck of a start. Habs 1-0 over Oilers 18 seconds in and headed to the power play

— Jon Still (@Imstilljon) March 30, 2021

It is fair to wonder whether the Canadiens were terrific or the Oilers were terrible last night.

Edmonton were playing their third game in four nights and certainly didn’t play to the level they showed against the Maple Leafs just 24 hours earlier.

What does support the Habs' claim is that they showed none of the issues that many would have expected after a long layoff.

Their passing was crisp. Their forecheck was effective. Their backcheck was disruptive.

With so many excuses available to them after the week off, it was certainly encouraging to see the team not use any of them and respond with one of their better games of the season.

“Really important,” insisted interim head coach Dominique Ducharme post-game when asked about his team’s back pressure limiting the Oilers best players. “We don’t want to sit back. I think we’re a good skating team and we want to make sure that we take that time and space away from every team that we play and any good players. You give those top players a little bit more time and they’ll find solutions.”

It was that kind of attention to detail that was most reassuring from two periods of near-flawless hockey from the Habs.

Although the Oilers were second-best, they had three chances for their big guns to prove their worth on the power play, but the Canadiens gave them next to nothing on the penalty kill, another aspect of their game that could have loosened up during their time off.

The always dependable line of Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar showed their quality once again as they were responsible for half of the goals by the Habs, but a statement game from both Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen flanking Kotkaniemi was just the tonic they needed, especially with their places in the lineup further threatened by the acquisition of Eric Staal and the signing of top prospect Cole Caufield.

Without Tyler Toffoli in the lineup both players gave their head coach even more of a headache when it comes to team selection in the near future.

“This is the NHL, your job is on the line every day,” pointed out an honest Byron post-game. “Every day there is a guy pushing in the minors, every day there’s a new draft pick who is pushing to get on the team. You know, we signed Cole, we traded for Eric. We already had guys sitting out that were really good NHL players. For times like tonight where you’re missing two guys to have two guys step in and play good, reliable minutes for the team it’s huge.”

Lehkonen and Michael Frolik did indeed enter the lineup and did a solid job, the former more so than the latter. It was a good thing too as even during a week off, the Canadiens' organization and general manager couldn’t help but keep busy.

GM Marc Bergevin acquired Staal from Buffalo to provide some depth at the center position on Friday for third and fifth round draft picks. Staal will at the least be an upgrade on Jake Evans and at best could provide a similar shot in the arm to the fourth line as Corey Perry has.

The next day the Habs announced the signing of Caufield to a three-year, entry level contract.

There hasn’t been an offensive prospect in the organization with the finishing ability of the diminutive winger for more than 30 years. His production in the NCAA this season will almost surely see him win the Hobey Baker Award for the best player in college hockey.

The club announced that he will report to Laval once his seven-day quarantine is complete. However, due to his domination at the University of Wisconsin this season combined with the team’s hellacious schedule down the stretch, don’t be surprised to see him suit up for his first NHL game between now and mid-May.

Speaking of the Rocket, they defeated the Manitoba Moose last night by a score of 3-1 to collect at least a point in their last 10 games. They are running away with their division with a record of 15-4-2 and look set to add the best player in college hockey to their ranks. Ryan Poehling continues to emerge in his second AHL season and Joel Bouchard has his team flying.

The Canadiens 4-0 victory over the Oilers may have just been the cherry on top of a solid week of business for the club.

Now they embark on an unprecedented grind, a schedule that will test the depth of a team that has lots of it. The first game of the team’s second half showed that the Habs can cope, thrive even under the right circumstances. The next 24 games in 42 days will unveil whether the Canadiens are pretenders or contenders.

Player Ratings

Goaltender

Carey Price – 7/10

The 49th shutout of his career was certainly one of his easiest. A third period slot stop on Draisaitl was his best and it wasn’t even that remarkable as far as his best saves go. His teammates rewarded his fine play of late with an easy night at the office, and he delivered.

Defencemen

Shea Weber – 8/10

Looked like the player who benefitted most from the week-long layoff. His passing in particular was much improved last night. Earned an assist on Gallagher’s goal after his point shot rang off the post and settled just in front of the goal line. Lynchpin of a fantastic penalty kill on the night as well. Skated well. A great night to manage his minutes, which the coach did in the third period. Crossbar as well on the powerplay.

Joel Edmundsson – 7/10

Not nearly as noticeable as his defensive partner, although he did also earn an assist on Lehkonen’s goal with a shot from the point. Like Weber he proved his worth on the penalty kill by striking a nice balance between aggressive and passive. At even strength kept mostly everything to the outside.

Jeff Petry – 7/10

No goals? What gives? Clearly the break has hurt his offensive prowess. Seriously though, just a solid game from him. Kept things ticking on the power play despite no clear-cut chances. Passing was a little off compared to normal but if that was the extent of the rust in his game it didn’t hurt his team in the least. Did his job defensively.

Brett Kulak – 7/10

The Kulak appreciation tour continues. Made one absolutely unreal cross-ice pass that sprung Suzuki for a half-chance. Once again his skating was his best asset last night. Not his usual roving self in the offensive zone but got in the way defensively and broke out the puck out of his own end effectively. Can he keep up his impressive form? That’s the big question.

Alexander Romanov – 8/10

Brought the nasty. Made enemies of both Kassian and Archibald and for no other reason than being good at his job. Led the team in hits with five, some of the more painful variety. Sorted things out well in his own zone. He and Mete seem to be developing a decent understanding between each other. His passing was solid in terms of his breakouts as well. You have to like that he brought the bite and didn’t back down.

Victor Mete – 7/10

After what was arguably his best performance of the season 10 days ago he turned in another above average showing alongside Romanov. Most impressed by his compete level in one-on-one battles last night, as he held his own and didn’t get overrun. Had one solid chance save by Koskinen. The scoreline in the third allowed he and the Russian to develop further chemistry with one another.

Forwards

Phillip Danault – 9/10

Two assists, including one great set up for Tatar for his goal. Won 58 percent of his faceoffs, with many coming in the defensive zone. Was the Habs best penalty killing forward as well. But his true value was the job he did on McDavid. Any night you keep the best player in the world off the scoresheet you’ve done more than a fine job. Robbed by Koskinen on the back hand in the first as well. Most used Habs forward as well.

Tomas Tatar – 7/10

Thought his linemates were better than him on the night but only by a little bit. His quick shot killed off the game in the second period. Hit the crossbar in the first for good measure. Not nearly as many of his patented button hooks high up in the offensive zone, but was a willing and effective forechecker.

Brendan Gallagher – 8/10

Vintage Gallagher once again as he led the way for the forwards. Caused all kinds of problems in front of Koskinen early in the first period. His goal was a classic example of him just wanting to score more than the defender wanted to defend. Did all of the dirty work in the lead up and then forced the turnover for Tatar’s goal to wrap up the game. His play was once again the example for his teammates on the night.

Nick Suzuki – 7/10

The rest clearly did a world of good for him when it came to his skating. Seemed to regain the half a step he’d been missing of late, for one night at least. His creative, spin-o-rama pass to Drouin should have been a beautiful goal. Blew past the Oilers defense late on to create a chance for himself that went off the outside of the post. Not enough sustained pressure from his line but a step in the right direction for him. Brutal in the dot however.

Jonathan Drouin – 7/10

His best chance should have been a one-timer into the back of the net off a spinning feed from Suzuki but took a second too long, allowing Koskinen to get back in position. Looked supremely confident with the puck on his stick and ran the power play more than once from his office on the right-hand boards. Looked threatening and worked hard but couldn’t do much to create many high danger scoring chances.

Josh Anderson – 6/10

Are we going to get up in arms every time someone on the Habs fights now? For 20 years fans have been crying out for Canadiens players to stand up for themselves. Now one of them is and fans are losing their mind that Anderson is fighting. Other than the scrap he didn’t do much out there. No hits and no real scoring chances.

Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 8/10

His quick move at the blueline and snipe 18 seconds in gave the team it’s confidence on the night. Threw his weight around more than usual as well. His distribution was on point as he rarely missed or failed to complete a pass. His line drove play and had a great understanding of where to be on the ice for one another. Highest percentage of faceoffs won on the team. Should have had another one late on but fired it over the net. Receiving an elbow to the face from McDavid only spurred him on.

Artturi Lehkonen – 7/10

Could have been wearing the goat horns but luckily just stayed onside for Kotkaniemi’s opener. For a guy who always struggles to score it’s always a plus when he gets one, especially a greasy rebound in tight. Scrapped and clawed his way throughout the game, which is what he does at his best. Terrific on the penalty kill. His linemates simply overshadowed him a bit on the night. He is certainly hearing the footsteps from the Habs recent moves and raising the level of his game in response.

Paul Byron – 8/10

What a brilliant move to hold the puck the extra second longer to set up Kotkaniemi for his opener. Made something happen every time he touched the puck. Led the forwards in hits with four, highlighting his feistiness on the night. Found little pockets of space on the rush, with one move kicked out by a toe save by Koskinen. His battle in front of the net led to Lehkonen’s goal as well. Just implicated all over the ice.

Jake Evans – 6/10

Livelier than we’ve seen from him of late, which isn’t surprising considering he’s certainly trying to make a statement now that Staal has been acquired. Did a solid job on the forecheck and one-on-one battles. Good job on the penalty kill as well. Won the majority of his faceoffs. Decent.

Corey Perry – 6/10

Didn’t do much but was disruptive on the powerplay, where he played the majority of his minutes on the night. Had some solid offensive zone time on the cycle but couldn’t do much in terms of carving out point-blank chances. A quieter than normal night from him.

Michael Frolik – 6/10

After more than a year away, welcome to the player ratings Mr. Frolik. Surprised we didn’t see him on the penalty kill considering that’s where he’s expected to make his mark. Didn’t do much of anything at even strength except for cutting off a decent looking 2-on-1 on the back check. But nice enough just to see him out there. Let’s give him a mulligan.

Coach

Dominique Ducharme – 9/10

Not sure what he did during the break to ensure his players would be raring to go last night but they were implicated in the game from the drop of the puck. Must have been quite a challenge but that didn’t translate to the ice at all. His defensive pairings appear to be stabilizing with some chemistry. His forward lines worked like a charm without two regulars in the lineup. His team won the special teams battle by quite a large margin. Held two of the best forwards in the league off the scoresheet. Managed minutes well in the third. The coach’s challenge for offside on the McDavid goal was a no-brainer but you still have to make that call, which he did. Just a pretty flawless game from his team and he played a big part in it.

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