Thursday, 13 October 2016

Game 1: Habs vs Sabres


- Welcome to our new feature, 5 Habs Thoughts the Day After, which is pretty much exactly as the title suggests. We'll be doing this feature throughout the season, providing readers with a summation about the game played the night previous. So ... about last night ...

- It's always nice to start the season on a winning note, although the Habs win was, to put it generously, uneven. The Canadiens started very strong - for the first 15 minutes of the 1st period, it looked like they were going to totally overwhelm their opponent. But then the team seemed to go into a collective funk that lasted through the remainder of the period, carried through most of the 2nd period, and lasted through about the first 5 minutes of the 3rd before the Habs seemed to catch a second wind.  The Torrey Mitchell goal, which reestablished the Habs 2 goal margin, seemed to take the energy out of the Sabres legs. You'll see that often with young teams - they're easily disgruntled - and who can blame them? The Sabres really were taking it to the Habs for essentially the middle half of the game, and still found themselves trailing by 2 goals for all their efforts.

- So while the Habs letdown was not exactly a scrapbook highlight, there were many interesting positives. The brightest light of the night was Artturi Lehkonen, who played a tremendously, even more so if you consider it was his very first NHL game. Lehkonen really meshed well along side Tomas Plekanec (who played an excellent two-way game for the Habs), and if not for a couple of nifty saves by Sabres goalie Robin Lehner, would have scored at least one goal. Lehkonen demonstrated some keen hockey smarts - and seemed to have a good sense of when to drive to the net. I'm sure Habs management were delighted by what they saw from this young winger.

- Defensively, Habs also played unevenly, but they did have two very strong performances by Greg Pateryn and (surprise!) Alexei Emelin, the later of whom delivered many thunderous checks, mostly contained in the neutral zone, on Sabres forwards. Emelin's was smart with his physicality, delivering his hits in situations that didn't remove him from his defensive responsibilities. I'm sure that Therrien will go back with this duo on Saturday night, if only to see if there might be some good chemistry developing between the two. Keep in mind, 3rd line spots on the Habs blue line is very competitive this season - with the first 5 positions already spoken for by Weber, Markov, Petry, Beaulieu and Sergachev, competition for that 6th spot is going to be fierce.

- Or, maybe it won't. Speaking of Mikhail Sergachev, it was baptism by fire last night, and his NHL inexperience was pretty glaring. While Sergachev didn't make any errors that led directly to Buffalo goals, he frequently looked overwhelmed by the speed of the League, which was further complicated by some tentative passes that produced a couple of glorious scoring opportunities for the Sabres. It's just Sergachev's first game, so a lot of the criticism has to be taken with a pinch of salt, but if he continues to struggle with adapting to the NHL, certainly understandable given his age, the Habs may give him a year in the AHL to help him make the transition to the big league.

- Finally, Shea Weber. While his debut wasn't anticipated nearly as much as Subban's will be in Nashville, Weber gave a pretty standard Weber performance. Sturdy, physical, understated and utterly forgettable. What you saw last night is what you'll see for the rest of this season. Weber, unlike the player he's replacing, has little flair, flash or dash to his game. He eats time, does a decent job moving the puck forward, clears a little traffic in front, and that's it. Weber did pick up the point last night off a point shot - although ironically it came off a simple wrist shot that was deflected in by Gallagher, not off one of his notorious slapshot howitzers.

Habs now travel back closer to home to take on the Senators in Ottawa, before opening up the season at home Monday night. We'll be posting news, if there's anything worth noting, leading up to the game, and putting up a game preview later in the day.



- Habs CF% (5v5) through 40 minutes just 50.0%. Which is bad considering they were at 58% after one period. Basically the Sabres had significant majority of possession (12:18 to be exact), with shot totals accordingly showing a pretty large edge in favour of Buffalo.

- Sabres have an interesting little thing they do before the period starts, their line huddles up at the blue line, not unlike they do in football. Not sure what the purpose of this is, but it looks cool.

- Shea Weber with a disgraceful crosscheck from behind in the corner that the League really should be making an automatic game misconduct, but for whatever reason, chooses not to. Within seconds, the Sabres score, and we immediately see Weber's first game sheet contribution. Against his team. 2-1 now.

- Habs a slop fest in their own zone, horrid puck turnovers. Sabres haven't lost a step to start this period. Taking it to the Habs.

- Sergachev a little deer in the headlights in more than a couple of situations tonight. So much talent, but most of it pretty raw.

- Lehkonen has had a pretty good game - very involved offensively, and if not for a couple of outstanding saves by Lehner, would easily be on the scoresheet.

- Shea Weber just made a scoring contribution - the right kind, anyway. Sabres got all kinds of messed up in their zone, leaving their slot unprotected. Weber with a point shot, neatly tipped by Gallagher past Lehner to reestablish a 2-goal lead. Sabres inexperience showing through badly on that goal, a lot of hard work the past couple of periods undone.

- Gorges with a retaliation mugging of Mitchell, after Emelin delivered a hard open ice (clean hit). Mitchell still down on the ice, favouring his head? Hard to tell. Terrible relational by Gorges. Terrible.

- Reply shows that Mitchell kind of fell into the Gorges check, but it looked very clear that Gorges was lining him up for a blindside hit, so the dirty play still stands. Mitchell taking a knee to the head.

- After a rough first few minutes of the period, things have gradually shifted in Montreal's favour, Habs getting much more possession and more quality scoring chances, powerplays removed. 9 minutes left.

- Carr with a very dirty goal with Habs swarming Sabres net. Buffalo challenges for goaltender interference, but I don't see anything there. Likely 4-1 Habs now.

- Good goal, Habs with probably insurmountable lead at 4-1. They've dominated since 5 minute mark of this period, Sabres just couldn't keep up, and Lehner has struggled.

- Pretty decent outing for Emelin, I've counted 4 thunderous hits from his tonight, certainly much more physical than was Weber. He and Pateryn having games that exceeded normal expectations.

- Habs win, albeit it was an uneven victory. Team went into a 30 minute funk between the last five minutes of the 1st extending to the first 5 minutes of the 3rd, where the Sabres were the better team. Fortunately Montoya had a pretty solid start, and Habs did have some bright spots - mainly that of Arthur Lehkonen, who was frequently involved and if not for some excellent saves by Lehner, should have had a least one goal. Pateryn and Emelin looked sharp, and Shea Weber was ... hmm shall we say ... adequate?


- Habs with defined possession edge in the first period, 57.9% CF% (5v5) in the frame.

- I suppose I should have mentioned Shea Weber right now. He was okay in that first period. Made a couple of good hits in the corners, made a couple of decent shot attempts on the powerplay. But still pretty low key performance, pretty much the exact opposite of the guy who was traded away to get him. 

- Sergachev clearly trying to adjust to a much faster game than he's every played in his life. Has made a few puck handling errors, but possesses the mobility to save himself. At least so far.

- 4th line production by the Habs which has looked pretty good tonight, Byron driving the net hard and buried into the boards as a result, Mitchell tucking home the loose puck and it's 2-0. Another spot the Habs really struggled with last year - 4th line contributions. Hopefully that's a sign of more to come.

- Habs aren't exactly squatting on this lead, but they've discernibly shifted their focus from being aggressive in the Sabres zone and centre ice, to covering their zone, and passing lanes. Sabres have had a significant edge in shots and possession since the 15 minute mark of the first period.

- Not good. Habs are losing puck fights in their own zone, and it's creating some defensive breakdowns in which the Sabres are getting good scoring chances. Montoya very solid so far, keeping Buffalo off the board. Still, this is a habit, the let downs, that we saw a lot of last year that killed the Habs season.

- Is Desharnais hurt? Unbelievably he has the least amount of ice time among all Habs forwards, a meagre 6:32 with just 5 minutes left in the 2nd.

- Sabres 2nd powerplay, Habs PK was pretty much chaos, and it not for dumb luck and Buffalo incompetence finishing plays, this game really ought be 2-1. At least.

- Habs plainly out skated and out hustled in the period - no logical explanation for the let down against such a lesser Sabres team, except that possibly the team went out to hard to start the game? I'm at a loss.

- Evander Kane who's been a bull in a china shop tonight, falling awkwardly going full steam into the corner, losing his footing as he was given a relatively mild shove by Emelin. No real penalty there, but Kane is clearly significantly injured.

- Habs might lead 2-0 on the scoreboard, but that was a very tilted period in favour of the Sabres, who were far more organized and aggressive than they were in the 1st period. Habs looked ... tired? It's absurd to speculate, but they just seemed to lose most of the battles for, and races to, loose pucks. One more period like that, Buffalo might fight their way back into this thing.


- Well, here we go, game 1 of 82. Here's hoping it's the exact opposite of what we had to endure last year.

- It's EARLY going, but Sabres look ... uh ... not good. Offence is, shall we say, disorganized.

- Habs 4th line forecheck is pretty aggressive, with two forwards playing deep in the neutral zone. Not sure if that's accidental or experimentational.

- Lots of long-bomb passes blue line to forwards, same strategy used last year, to mostly unsuccessful result.

- Sergachev gets a little powerplay time, which is great to see. Looked a little nervous passing the puck, made one ill-advised pass that nearly gave Sabres a 2-on-0 breakaway. It's a learning process.

- First game goal, first season goal. It's Gallagher with a very un-Gallagher like goal, snap shot from 40 feet beats Lehner stick side. 1-0 Habs. Good passing key to the goal there, as it usually is for most NHL goals.

- There's the Shaw effect, icing called, and Shaw manages to troll Foligno into a roughing penalty.

- Habs powerplay is 0-2, but still looks markedly better than the hapless scenes we endured last year. Not sold on Markov paired with Weber - they got all kinds of mixed up at the line, creating a Sabres breakaway that was saved nicely by Montoya. When Petry returns, I'm hoping for more experimentation - with Beaulieu and maybe this Sergachev kid getting a few turns with different combinations. 

- Montoya has made a couple of nice saves this period - obviously the Habs are hoping for a bit more consistency from their backup this year - fully acknowledging that Mike Condon was forced into an impossible situation, and did the best he could given the circumstances. 

- Habs with a bit of a let-down last 5 minutes of the first period. One assumes you can only dominate a period for so long, but Sabres seem to be getting a little more organized as the period has progressed.

- Pretty one-sided period of hockey, Habs fans will be happy with what they've seen. Fast start to the game, the Canadiens carried the play through much of the first 3/4 of the period, giving the young Sabres defence fits. All said, one couldn't have hoped for much more.


- The puck is dropping shortly for the first game of the year, a couple of things I'd like to mention in advance of the game. First, this site is going to be a little more content focused this year - we're going to be adding a few more pieces to provide readers with a little more in-depth content, and new features such as weekly team rankings, Habs player rankings, and a new post-game feature, "5 Points", which will offer post game summaries and observations for every Habs game. So, stay tuned and watch!!

- The news we've been hearing about all week has been, of course, the flu virus that has knocked Carey Price out of the start tonight, so Al Montoya will get the call. Which, given that the Sabres are likely the kind of team you'd start your backup against anyway, works out. 

- It'll be fun to see just how well Alex Radulov plays tonight. A productive top-6 winger on the right side will give this team an immense offensive boost that it sorely lacked through much of last year. If Radulov produces, the Habs are going to be a difficult team to beat.

- Also looking forward to seeing the new kids, specifically Mikhail Sergachev, and of course, Artturi Lehkonen. Expectations of both should be tempered - they're playing their first ever regular season NHL games, so even though both are talented, there will be a learning curve.

- Bottom defensive pairing should be interesting. Depending on how things to with Sergachev, there are too many bodies for the last pairings, with Alexei Emelin, Greg Pateryn, and Zach Redmond all fighting for one spot, when Jeff Petry makes his return to the lineup. Still think Marc Bergevin will be doing his best to move Emelin over the next few weeks, basically for anyone who'll have him, ideally for a pick or mild salary pickup in return.

- Puck drops at 7:10 EST.  But then, you knew that.


We’ve arrived. We’ve finally arrived. The cusp of a new season, filled with renewed hopes for fans around the country that the upcoming season will bring them joy and fulfillment that goes with cheering for a winning team.

For those whose hearts are aligned with the Montreal Canadiens, the story this October is not unlike those of recent Octobers. Anticipation and belief that their championship drought will finally come to an end.

Unlike recent Octobers, this season brings a defined sense of melancholy for Habs fans, still many weeks removed from a massive deal that resulted in the heart and soul of the team, P.K. Subban, being dealt to the Nashville Predators for the hulking frame of Shea Weber. It was a trade that many had hoped would somehow be avoided, but the decision to move Subban, come hell or high water, was likely made well before the day he was dealt in late June.

Objectively, the deal likely will serve to benefit both teams – the Predators will now have a high powered, mobile blue line that will make them a force to be reckoned with, and in an instant, a viable Stanley Cup contender next spring. The Canadiens will realize an improvement in their defensive durability, and likely a slight increase in powerplay effectiveness. Whether they’ll be in the championship conversation next year is another matter altogether.

Long term, the trade will likely be highly regrettable for Montreal. While Weber is an excellent talent, Subban has 4 years on his side, and a proven ability to be an elite puck moving defenseman in a League that’s moving further away from “grit” hockey as a winning model.

Which is to say, the window for ending the championship drought in Habsland is closing rather quickly. With Subban gone, and foundation pieces like Carey Price and Max Pacioretty moving into and beyond their prime productive years, the Canadiens likely have this season and the next to be a viable Stanley Cup contender. Beyond that, with Weber’s salary cap impacting the bottom line, and making it difficult for management to retain all of their key assets, the Canadiens are likely to enter a rebuilding phase.

Setting aside the Subban trade, the off season was productive for Montreal. The Habs, credit to G.M. Marc Bergevin, managed to snag free agent Alex Radulov from Russia. Albeit carrying some behavioural baggage, Radulov, who’s been playing overseas in the KHL since 2009, solidifies what was once the most glaring weaknesses of the team, a top-6 right hand shooting forward.

Although the KHL is no NHL, Radulov did put up some impressive numbers, averaging well over a point per game playing with CSKA Moskva and Salavat Youlaev (go fighting Youlaev!). He also had an impressive and productive camp, so anything in the 60 point production range for Radulov will be a huge bonus for the Canadiens.

Radulov probably represented the biggest player acquisition this summer, although there may be a case made for 1st round entry pick, Mikhail Sergachev, who was the OHL’s defenseman of the year in 2015-16. Sergachev, whom some expected might go as high as a top-5 pick, was still up for grabs when the Habs came to the table with their 9th overall selection. Marc Bergevin and Trevor Timmons didn’t waste their chance and nabbed the young Russian, who they hope will eventually fill the shoes of the soon departing Andrei Markov, who’s entering the final year of a contract extension, possibly the last of his NHL career.

The big question around Sergachev wasn’t whether he was the best choice (he was), but whether he had the skill and maturity to actually crack the lineup this season. After an excellent camp, those questions were quickly answered, as the Habs announced that Sergachev would be suiting up to start the season. The only remaining question is whether the Canadiens will play Sergachev 9 games, which means this year would be counted in qualification for restricted free agency.

Speaking of draft picks, a big surprise out of camp this year was the performance of Artturi Lehkonen, who was signed to an entry level contract this May. Lehkonen, who was previously playing in the Swedish Hockey League, was picked 2nd overall by the Canadiens in the 2013 draft. The lesson here is - players mature and develop differently – the time Lehkonen spent playing elite hockey in Europe served him well enough to earn him a starting spot this season.

Lehkonen’s gain is someone else’s loss – two Habs forwards may not hold much of a future in Montreal because of Lehkonen’s spot on the roster – Michal McCarron, he of six feel, two million inches stature, and Sven Adrighetto. While it’s likely either or both will be playing at some point this season to fill injury vacancies, their future with the Habs remains, at best, uncertain.

The Habs made a few more additions including signing UFA bottom-6 muckraker Andrew Shaw, to help, in the words of Bergevin, to give the team some “character”. While Shaw will do his best to mix things up on the ice, I don’t think his acquisition will give the Habs much, if any, strategic or “grit” advantage, largely because the grinding formula for victory has long passed in the NHL. Today, you win with speed and skill. Oh, well.

So in case you’ve lost, or grown bored reading this overlong analysis, let’s boil it down to who’s in, and who’s out:

Who’s out:

- P.K. Subban
- Dale Weise
- Tom Gilbert
- Ben Scrivens

Who’s in:

- Shea Weber
- Alex Radulov
- Artturi Lehkonen
- Andrew Shaw
- Al Montoya

What does this all mean? Well, without a healthy Carey Price, it means nothing. This, of course, is the biggest of many sizable questions surrounding the Canadiens this season – will Carey Price be healthy? If the World Championship of Hockey was any indication, in which Price helped lead team Canada to a championship, the answer seems to be a comfortable “yes”. But nothing is certain.

There are other big questions. Coaching remains a significant issue. After a disastrous 2015-16, many eyes are on Micheal Therrien, now in the 4th year of his second stint as Montreal’s head coach. If the Habs stumble early, even with a healthy Price between the pipes, the pressure may be unbearable for Bergevin to endure, and Therrien could be an early season casualty. Which makes the off season acquisition of the adapt Kirk Muller as an assistant all the more prescient. If Therrien is turfed, Muller would likely be promoted to fill his spot.

The thing is, the Habs shouldn’t stumble early. This is still a very good hockey team that was bolstered this offseason by an excellent draft pick, the addition of a prized Russian forward, and the surprise addition of an earlier draft pick to the Canadiens’ starting lineup. This is a team that should have little difficulty in making the post season – perhaps even challenging for 1st place in their Division. Beyond qualification, there remains only one objective that matters any more – and that is a Stanley Cup championship in Montreal – the first in what would be a 24 year drought.

Which, in case you’re doing the math, is the same number of championships won by this esteemed franchise.

It’s been a long six month wait, but we’ve arrived.

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