As we approach the quarter mark in the 2023-24 NHL season, one of the biggest surprises has to be the Montreal Canadiens.
The Canadiens are in a wildcard playoff spot and exactly 16th in the league overall. Dire predictions of the near-worst team in the league have, so far, proven founded.
They missed an opportunity to improve that standing by falling to the Calgary Flames 2-1.
It may be the best hockey that Christian Dvorak has played for the Canadiens, and it’s unusual when it has finally come. When a player comes back from a major injury and has to join the team during the season, the start is usually spent simply trying to catch up.
What’s happened instead is Dvorak has joined the lineup and excelled right away. His return has been massive to the team’s fortunes. After the injury to Kirby Dach, Alex Newhook was forced into the centre’s role where he was ill-suited. Newhook with Josh Anderson and Juraj Slafkovsy was caved in every night. It looked as if Slafkovsky was swimming. Newhook couldn’t win a face-off.
When Dvorak returned, Newhook moved to the wing, the lines got re-formed and the team suddenly found some stability. Newhook looked comfortable with Nick Suzuki and Anderson, but more than that, Dvorak had awakened a beast in Slafkovsky.
In the first period alone, Dvorak was the architect of Montreal’s best two chances. He deftly lifted a saucer pass to Anderson who had a strong chance on goal, but fired wide. He then held on to the puck a beat longer to allow the Calgary defender to come to him, and then freed Mike Matheson for a superb chance.
In the second, it was Slafkovsky to Dvorak who laid a sweet pass cross-crease onto the stick of Gustav Lindstorm, who got the Canadiens on the board.
What could cause a player to be at his best at a time that one expects his worst is a great mystery in hockey. Mostly, the swap of Jesperi Kotkaniemi for Dvorak has looked like a big miss for former GM Marc Bergevin.
In fact, with Kotkaniemi leading the Hurricanes in scoring, the ice is tilted fairly significantly in Carolina’s favour. Perhaps Dvorak can still find the talent spurt that made him one of the best players in the Ontario Hockey League.
Many are still waiting for that player who grabbed 121 points with Matthew Tkachuk and Mitch Marner on the way to a Memorial Cup. The argument that Dvorak lived off their coattails in the OHL is still a valid one, though Dvorak was the centre on the line.
This is the best Dvorak has been so far in a Montreal uniform, but will it continue, or will he fall back? Right now, he seems more responsible than anyone for the success of Slafkovsky. The number one pick overall has looked quite comfortable on Dvorak’s right along with Cole Caufield on the left.
Late in the first, Slafkovsky made an outstanding pass to Caufield for a superb chance for Montreal. It was a pass that not a lot of players can make, because Slafkovsky had to use his long reach to keep the puck away from a would-be poke check from the Flames defender. A smaller player is unable to use his reach to get that pass to Caufield like Slafkovsky was able to.
It is three games running now that Slafkovsky’s level is significantly higher than the 13 matches that preceded it. Overall, the team is in a much better place. All the centres are playing well and Montreal is a better hockey team down the middle than expected after Dach went down.
The absence of Jordan Harris was felt in this one. The lack of his stability threw the final pair into imbalance as Gustav Lindstrom joined Arber Xhekaj. They were at fault for the first two Flames goals.
On the first, Lindstrom faltered early, losing the puck at centre ice and got no help from Dvorak on the zone entry, which led to Nazim Kadri doing a 360 turn between the dots in front of Xhekaj for a tally. On the second goal, Xhekaj lost his man on the back post allowing Connor Zary a tap-in.
That’s all it took — two mistakes. The Canadiens deserved more controlling large swaths of the contest, but they couldn’t get the equalizer despite many chances.
The most exciting part of an NHL hockey game these days is the 3-on-3 overtime, so, naturally, general managers are considering tinkering with what is working best in the entire league.
Word is that general managers are upset with players regrouping and taking the puck out of the offensive zone back into the neutral zone, or even their own defensive zone. It’s a natural strategy that has evolved as 3-on-3 overtime has evolved. Occasionally, it’s simply a way to change players on the fly.
No one has considered it to be a bore, because eventually every single overtime session gets to some form of fire wagon hockey with exciting chances being exchanged. Sometimes it does take a couple minutes to get going, but the nature of one chance begetting another chance begetting another chance does always happen in every single overtime.
Not good enough for the general managers who will discuss at the winter meetings in March what changes to contemplate. Suggestions are not allowing teams to exit the attacking zone, and there is talk of a shot clock.
Oddly, getting less discussion is simply extending the overtime session to seven minutes. This could be because the players are against putting their bodies on the line for another two minutes risking injury, or it could be due to simple fatigue for the league’s best players.
What hasn’t been discussed is axing the shootout which has fallen into disfavour with fans due to many players approaching their shot attempt with the speed of an airport line through customs.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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