The Montreal Canadiens welcomed the Columbus Blue Jackets to the Bell Centre on Thursday night as Montreal continued a busy run with five games in eight nights.
The Habs showed no signs of fatigue as they stayed in the fight, coming from two down to force overtime.
They won 4-3 late in the extra session.
It was a big relief for Nick Suzuki in the second period. He got the puck in the slot and deftly fired a wrist shot past Elvis Merzlikins.
In the seventh game, Suzuki finally scored his first goal of the season. Suzuki is working hard, but the line is missing a winger on the other side. When Christian Dvorak returns, that winger should be Sean Monahan. Both Josh Anderson and Rafael Harvey-Pinard are not gelling with Suzuki and Cole Caufield.
The best player on the night for the Canadiens was Mike Matheson, who is logging a ridiculous amount of ice time early in this season to try to get the Canadiens to the finish line each contest. It was 24 minutes against Buffalo, 26 minutes against New Jersey and 28 minutes against Columbus. That’s an exhausting week, yet he is excelling.
In the second period, on power play for the Blue Jackets Matheson blocked three shots, then on a power play for the Canadiens, he ripped a shot into the top corner to bring his club to within one. He scored a breathtaking power play goal, going end to end in the last Montreal game.
In the third period, the power play revolved around Matheson on the point. He got the second assist passing to Caufield who fed it to Monahan for the tip in.
Late third period, with the score tied, Matheson completed an absolutely sublime pass to free Caufield. It was an over-the-top alley-oop from blue line to blue line that landed in front of Caufield for the breakaway. Matheson did it all.
Matheson became a first-pair defender last season, talent-wise. He finally figured it out fully. He is consolidating that excellence so far this year. If he gets injured again, the ship is going down hard. A player getting 25 minutes this early in the season is getting 30 in the new year.
Martin St. Louis is already shortening his bench, with the injury to David Savard keeping him out six to eight weeks. Gustav Lindstrom has not yet won the coach’s confidence with 11 minutes per night.
Alex Newhook looks like another strong project chosen by GM Kent Hughes. Newhook is driving through lanes with big speed. He is creating offence down the middle. He also plays with more courage than anticipated.
One can’t know what happens with those draft picks for a few years that Hughes gave up, and the Colorado Avalanche did get some quality with those picks, but it also looks like Hughes found another gem.
Overtime was absolute entertainment. The fans were on their feet. The place was rocking. They were primed to celebrate, and Caufield completed a terrific night of hockey. Caufield was an absolute monster in overtime. He seemed to not leave the ice. He finally won it with a feint that undressed the defender and then a rocket into the top corner.
It was the most satisfying win of the year for the players and, no doubt, the fans.
Last season, one of the top goalies in the league in the best category to measure their play was Samuel Montembeault. Montembeault had the best season of his career putting together a sparking goals saved above expected (GSAE). That actually angered some fans because Sam kept stealing games, and stolen games meant the fifth pick overall in the draft instead of perhaps nabbing Connor Bedard.
This season, Montembeault is not stealing games. In fact, he is one of the worst goalies in the league so far in GSAE, with a negative number meaning he’s not helping his club at all. Montembeault was 12th in the NHL last season, but this year, he is 37th.
In this contest, Montembeault was fighting the puck a lot. He flat-out whiffed on catches. He was allowing goals inside the seven-hole under his arm. In the second period, he got fooled by a feint and left his post wide open for an easy tap in.
It must be said, though, that perhaps he had his turnaround in the third period and overtime. He played much better, and could build on it.
It is an odd time for Montembeault because it felt like a breakthrough season last year. He not only played well for the Habs, but then added to his resume with a sparkling World Hockey Championships effort.
Admittedly, this is a small sample size early this year, and there is plenty of time for Montembeault to figure it out. Jake Allen is the number one keeper for Montreal with a 3.1 goals saved above expected, good for 13th in the league.
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Allen struggled last season, but this year, the two seemed to have flipped roles again.
It’s worked through October, but eventually General Manager Kent Hughes has to make the call. Hughes cannot carry three goalies through the season. It’s not tenable for the salary cap, the roster or the goalies themselves.
There’s just not enough net for three over an extended period of time. Perhaps Hughes is waiting for one of them to get injured. Considering the last three years, that’s actually fairly logical planning.
That was a jest. Or was it?
The most likely to leave is Cayden Primeau back to Laval. This is because there just isn’t much of a goalie market in a trade. A GM does not get good value in a trade, historically. Goalies are the cornerstone of a cup run, but who find success in the net is so arbitrary that they aren’t appreciated as they deserve to be. For the same reason, the best goalie prospects aren’t often drafted high.
Hughes would make a trade to deal Samuel Montembeault or Jake Allen in a heartbeat, if he could get a good offer. Allen is in his 30s, and Montembeault likely put in the best season of his career last year. Add to that the fact Jacob Fowler is the best goalie prospect they have had since, well, Primeau.
The most likely scenario is the club will try to sneak Primeau through waivers eventually. It’s 50-50 whether they would lose him. The catch for the claiming club is they have to keep Primeau in the NHL or they forfeit the claim, and Primeau would return to Laval.
This actually means what a claiming club is assessing is the question, “Is Primeau better than our back-up?” The claiming club is asking itself if Primeau is good enough to play 25 games in the NHL this season. The answer is likely no. They’re likely to stand pat with their own goalies.
Expect Hughes to stall as long as he can. He can eventually get Primeau to Laval a single time for two weeks for a conditioning stint. He then must return to Montreal. Hughes will then assess the environment hoping that there might be goalie injuries around the league.
Of course, we all know that the injury will happen right here in Montreal, though, don’t we?
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.