It’s hard to stop momentum when it’s snowballing the wrong way. That was the challenge for Dominique Ducharme as he coached his second NHL game. He needed to inject either confidence or a different strategy, or both to get the Canadiens turned around. After two poor losses against Ottawa, the Canadiens looked just as bad against Winnipeg in Ducharme’s first game. Another chance against the Jets on Saturday night but Montreal could not finish sufficiently and lost 2-1 in overtime.
- In the first two games of the season, Alexander Romanov looked so ready to take the league by storm. He was head-manning passes up the ice for breakaways. He was hitting everything that moved. He was engaged in so many offensive situations. However, slowly something happened. It felt like he was hearing a little voice to choose the cautious action. As if he was being told to be safe and slow down the game.
Since the coaching change, it is back to the first two games of the season again. Romanov moved the puck up ice with quick passes regularly. He also took a couple of shots that both hit the post, as he was unlucky to not get the Habs on the scoreboard. He and Brett Kulak were also the best pairing in the analytics, so the eye test of the fans was confirmed by the numbers. The pairing dominated the game.
Romanov is just getting comfortable in his first 20 games in the NHL. He’s going to be a beast. He’s going to be a strong player bringing the modern game. The Canadiens will be a lot better hockey team when he is ready to be on the first pairing with Shea Weber, so a pairing getting 23 minutes of ice time can get the puck out easier and play more of the game in the attacking zone. The maturity of Romanov needs to happen as soon as possible. Saturday night was a positive night to that important end.
- The puck support from the entire team was considerably better. If one Canadiens player had the puck, close to him was an option or even two. There was an overall cohesion that was improved. The shots on goal which were about double in favour of the Habs definitely showed that this was a hungry team Saturday night putting in the best effort that they had in them.
The club had jump. They had their skating legs. The work rate was everything that you hope for overall. The goals have not been coming easily though, and that’s an issue.
The Canadiens are the best team in the NHL 5-on-5 in analytics which means they play a lot of time playing good hockey taking shots from good locations, but what the stat doesn’t include is the player’s ability to finish all that possession with an actual shot good enough to beat an NHL goalie. The shot quality is a part of the talent landscape as well.
The Canadiens are the horse led to water, but they are having trouble with the drinking part. That was the script for this one because by the end of the third period, the Canadiens were absolutely dominating the hockey game, except the score. It’s the score that counts and the Jets won in overtime.
- One talking point stressed in the Call Of The Wilde regularly is the Canadiens are short puck-moving defencemen to have an effective defensive corps. It’s not that any of the so-called stay-at-home defenders are bad, it is just as a balance, there is no balance. This is stressed so often because, in today’s modern game, there has to be speed, and in that assessment of speed, it’s the puck doing the moving. Nothing is faster than a pass.
Midway through the second period, Joel Edmundson has the puck on his stick at his own blue line with ice in front of him. Streaking through the two defenders at the Jets blue line was Paul Byron. Everyone saw it. A quick pass would release Byron for a breakaway, but Edmundson didn’t see him. Edmundson, while being a good defender in the old-fashioned ways of blocking out bodies, winning pucks in corners, battling for position, is not able to play a quick transition game. This is the style of play that Claude Julien said he wanted, and Dominique Ducharme, being, even more, a modern coach, will want even more transition.
Anyone who watched the game will remember the moment. Most were probably yelling at their TV “pass it” but it’s just not his game. Edmundson’s a good defender, but he was not the type of defender that the roster needed.
- There was good and bad in the battle to improve the power play led by new coach Alex Burrows. On the good side, there was more movement inside the offensive zone, and they were able to set up better. However, there still is too much reliance on the Shea Weber point shot from 50 to 55 feet. That’s just not going to go in anymore in the NHL. Goalies are too good.
If the plan is to have a man stand in front of the net, and it’s all about screens and deflections, then a more accurate shooter would be better. In fact, if the shot weren’t moving quite as fast, it would be easier to deflect. Add to that, four Weber shots on one power play is, of course, so predictable that it is more easily defended when you know it is coming. However, there was some improvement, but not yet enough.
It’s important to give the new coach some time to create systems that he is preaching to be ingrained in the players who are trying to break long-standing habits. All in all, still a goat, but at least a goat whose horns are shrinking.
- The head coaches of the Canadiens continue to confound with their overtime choices for manpower. The one point in the standings is already in the bank. You get the second point by attacking and scoring. They can never take that one point away from you. So why do the head coaches bring out players who defend all the time?
Philip Danault has not scored a single goal this season. Why is there an expectation that he will get the goal in overtime? Sure, he may defend for you well, but he’s not the talent that wins the overtime.
Again, to repeat, they can not take the point away from you.
Joel Armia was also on the first shift of overtime when it ended. Hockey played at 3-on-3 requires your fastest players to be on the ice to get the job done. It’s a track meet. You score the goal, which is the objective, with the talented finishers. Defending does not get you the extra point. This is the most confounding thing ever, and it never ends. All the other teams that the Canadiens face put their best scorers on the ice to go get the goal. In fact, the Jets started with their best three forwards for 3-on-3. At a loss here for words on this one. Signed, Dazed And Confused.
Cole Caufield continued his outstanding sophomore season at Wisconsin Saturday afternoon, with another dominating performance. Caufield notched a hat trick in the Badgers shutout win over Ohio State 7-0. Caufield now has 22 goals and 20 assists in 26 games.
The prettiest of the three goals for Caufield was the second one. It’s a two-on-one and Caufield crosses over from the right side to the left so he can as a right-handed shot take it not going across the body. When he does this, you will find only a handful of players who can find the top corner better than he can. And that’s not a handful in college hockey, that’s a handful in all of hockey. His accuracy to go upstairs is equalled by few.
It’s not to suggest that this player is a one-skill wonder though. Caufield has greatly improved his game overall. He is a better skater and a much better passer than last year. He also seems to have improved his hockey IQ by a large margin. He has shown duplicity when goalies are expecting his shot that has been extremely impressive. He looks as though he’s going to shoot, and then feeds a wide-open Badger for an easy goal. With that shot, what goalie is going to think he will pass? This is a weapon that he can use effectively even more and more.
Caufield will be a Hobey Baker finalist this season. His teammate who is not on his line, Dylan Holloway, should also be a finalist. Hollaway is a centre on the second line and does not actually play with the best players on the team. Holloway’s point-per-game is even better than Caufield’s. Holloway has 11 goals, 22 assists in 18 games this season. He might just be the better pro of the two.
The reason is size. It’s the only question mark of Caufield. He has broken through the size barrier at every level as a player, but this is why he fell to 15 in the draft. The final obstacle will be making his size a non-issue in the world’s best league.
Can he do it?
In some aspects of his game, there is no doubt at all. There is zero reason to believe that Caufield can not succeed on a power play. His ability to find the top corner with a shot is exactly what the Canadiens need on a power play that has suffered for what seems like a decade. Caufield can solve that issue almost by himself.
But will he get a chance to do that? Because he can not be a liability on the ice 5-on-5 waiting for that power play. As time passes, one should feel more reassured that he has it in him. His game has become more complete this year.
Caufield wanted to become a pro as soon as this year, but the Canadiens encouraged him to stay at Wisconsin one more season. It was the right call. You have to have the puck on your stick if you want to develop puck skills. Being in the higher league is worth nothing if you never have the puck.
He will sign pro as soon as his season concludes. Considering how good the Badgers are, that might not be soon. The Badgers could very well be representing the Big 10 in the Frozen Four. They are that good.
It’s assumed that the plan after he signs will be straight to Laval to get some American Hockey League experience. It is difficult to imagine he would be in Montreal as soon as this year.
However, next year, with Tomas Tatar an unrestricted free agent, and with Marc Bergevin right up against the salary cap, it’s easy to see him on the roster instead of Tatar, though that would be a bit of a balancing act with Caufield being a right-winger.
That’s down the road, but for now, Habs fans should be excited about a tremendous season from Caufield. Since draft day, he’s become a much better player. It continues to look like a steal at 15 overall, but patience is never discouraged as there are always growing pains too.
— Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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