It’s a busy week for the Montreal Canadiens with four games on the schedule. It started with a date in Buffalo against the Sabres, an unusual team to assess. They have some of the best young talent in hockey, but have not learned how to win regularly with that talent.
The Sabres, of whom much is expected, only have two wins in seven games as the Canadiens walked into Buffalo to post a 3-1 win.
The Canadiens are a much better team than last season. Many of the players who were sometimes over their head last season because they were just getting started are better players this season. It’s a long list of players who are improving under Martin St. Louis’ system.
Leading the way is every single one of the defenders who are playing their sophomore seasons. Arber Xhekaj is throwing his opponents around like they are a lesser species. It’s as if they have no muscles when they meet Xhekaj, who is taking penalties because he’s too strong. Just a light push on the back from Xhekaj and players are going flying.
Jonathan Kovacevic is another who quietly plays a very efficient game. He rarely makes mistakes, and you really don’t notice him much as a player because he is not flashy. Jordan Harris is exactly like Kovacevic — quietly excellent.
The real coming-of-age story on defence, though, is Justin Barron. He has only been in a couple games, but he looks excellent this season. What a bonus this would be for the Canadiens for Barron to be all that they hoped for when they dealt for him and lost Artturi Lehkonen.
Barron was strong against the Washington Capitals on Saturday night and he was even better on Monday night, opening the scoring for Montreal. He saw the opportunity on the rebound and absolutely wired a one-timer into the top of the net.
However, the biggest improvement on the team is the most important improvement for the organization. They took a massive chance on Juraj Slafkovsky and in his first season there must have been some anxious sleeps for GM Kent Hughes watching him be overmatched.
This season, the feeling here was when Kirby Dach went down that he was going to take Slafkovsky down with him. That feeling was not correct. Slafkovsky is making his way. He doesn’t have a goal, but we are early, and many on the club don’t have a goal yet.
If he keeps getting all the touches that he is getting, the goals will come. Slafkovsky had a breakaway in this contest, but was unable to get a powerful shot away in time on a slightly too-slow release. He will learn how to get that shot away more quickly next time.
In fact, that’s one of the key things to notice from Slafkovsky: he seems to learn quickly how to be a better player. Whatever he struggles with, he works on, and he gets better. Credit to the development coaches like Adam Nicolas on that front.
There is one notable negative, though. Slafkovsky seems to have a lack of cardio strength. Slafkovsky is often out of energy late in a shift, and if the shift gets extended, he really struggles.
It’s also noteworthy that the lack of energy at the end of the shift often translates to lack of leg speed as the lactic acid builds up. No ideas here how he can change that, but surely the training staff is aware and they will find solutions for him.
He’s not the first young athlete to have issues on this matter, and it rarely persists. A good example is tennis player Novak Djokovic, who could not make it through a difficult match when he was young. Djokovic would nearly faint, was dizzy, often lying prone in the middle of the court ill. He worked it out, and now has the best stamina in tennis even at 36.
It’s nearly unheard of that professional athletes are not able to work through this issue long-term. Certainly, Slafkovsky will figure it out as well in the passage of time. The Canadiens staff is full of clinicians, dieticians and trainers. They’ll get a handle on it eventually.
Call of the Wilde!
The Canadiens were dominated overall quite significantly in this one. Montreal stole this one in front of Jake Allen. Overall, they were chasing the puck a lot. Of course, that meant the Canadiens took a lot of minor penalties again. This time, it was five. Montreal is the most penalized team in the league.
It also meant they, once again, allowed a power play goal. Everyone from coaches to fans are going to lament that it is simply a matter of more discipline, or the referees calling it less vigilantly, but the truth is that when you don’t have the puck, you get a lot of penalties.
Not a giant point to make when it’s a 3-1 win, but the penalties will cost them a lot this season, even though it did not tonight.
Martin St. Louis, head coach of the Canadiens, never complains about the media. He always understands that the media also has a job to do, but last week he made an exception. St. Louis had a bone to pick as he lamented that he faced three days of constant questions about his poor special teams, but no one seemed to notice that 5-on-5 the team was doing well.
The head coach has a valid point. It’s the nature of the business and it shouldn’t be. St. Louis had every right to expect questions not just about the difficulty of the power play, but also the excellence of Montreal’s 5-on-5 play. In fact, considering four-fifths of hockey is played 5-on-5, shouldn’t the focus be more on that aspect of hockey, and less on special teams?
It should. Martin St. Louis is completely right.
Here are the numbers so far this season before the Sabres game: Montreal has been terrible when the club is up a man or down a man. The goals for and against is 3-11. They’ve allowed five power play goals, but the bigger revealing number is that they have already allowed four goals with the other team having their goalie pulled.
However, stop for a second and realize the value of 5-on-5 hockey where the Canadiens have been shockingly good. When both clubs have equal manpower, the Canadiens have scored 10 goals and allowed only three. This puts them right there with the best teams in the NHL.
The truth is that all of these numbers are going to revert to the mean averages. The special teams will tighten up. They surely won’t allow a goal every time the other team pulls their net minder. They also won’t remain close to the best team in the league with equal manpower on the ice.
Right now, though, Martin St. Louis has every right to expect more from us. We should be talking about the Canadiens being among the best 5-on-5, because, as he noted, that’s the first building block to success in hockey and he likes what he sees.
We should see it, too.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.