Still Talkin’ Habs: Habs conclude strangest of seasons with 4-3 OT loss to the Oilers
Published Thursday, May 13, 2021 6:39AM EDT Last Updated Thursday, May 13, 2021 11:45AM EDT
MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens are headed into the playoffs on the back of a five-game winless streak, losing 4-3 in overtime to the Edmonton Oilers with a rag-tag roster that will look far different from the one that will face the Toronto Maple Leafs in a week’s time.
It’s all over now.
The Habs will now get two days off before a few days of practice with the full group to properly prepare for their first playoff series against their rivals since 1979.
With spots in the lineup on the line for some of the players who hit the ice in Wednesday night’s meaningless game, at least one player seized his chance to make an impression. Cole Caufield put up his first multi-point game in the NHL and seemed to thrive in an elevated role next to Nick Suzuki. The other players on the bubble did little to sway opinions about their game.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi continued to look devoid of confidence, caught between two minds several times.
He had a couple of chances in the first period that he inexplicably passed off with wide-open looks to shoot.
He looked more confident as the game wore on, but he still struggled to create much of anything offensively.
He is clearly fragile at the moment and despite recognizing that he is one of the youngest players in the NHL, his regression during the second half of the season is worrying for his third year in the league.
Jesse Ylonen, a player with the potential to fill a middle-six role on the wing when he matures, made his NHL debut. His effortlessly smooth skating and direct style stood out, with an offensive flash here and there in a limited fourth-line role. He’ll need at least another year of seasoning in the AHL before being considered for a spot on the roster. Ditto for Cayden Primeau, who looked shaky for the second straight game.
But let’s be honest. As much as you wanted to complain about a couple of calls by the officials or a line you didn’t like, it was hard to get emotionally invested in last night’s game. You likely watched the game trying to forecast what we might all see from the Canadiens in a week’s time.
So instead of player ratings to wrap up the regular season, I’ll instead attempt to forecast what interim head coach Dominique Ducharme will do with his lineup for Game 1 of the playoffs while providing my own take on what I believe gives the Canadiens the best chance to upset the Leafs.
Before that though, a few caveats. With a veil of silence over his status, it’s safe to say that it would be shocking for Jonathan Drouin to be a part of the team to start the playoffs.
All of the other injured Habs have been seen on the ice in Brossard as they work their way back to full fitness. That would suggest that Drouin is not in the team’s immediate plans.
No matter how well Jake Allen has played this season, he is a placeholder until the king returns. If Carey Price is healthy, as it seems he will be to kick things off, then he will be in between the pipes for the Canadiens.
Count me as skeptical that he’ll be able to flip a switch coming off the couch. But if there is to be a Canadiens upset, he’ll have to be integral to it.
Let’s start with the boss.
Toffoli – Suzuki – Armia
Tatar – Danault – Gallagher
Anderson – Staal – Perry
Lehkonen – Evans – Byron
Chiarot – Weber
Edmundson – Petry
Kulak – Romanov
With his team selection, Ducharme has indicated that he feels most comfortable playing veteran players.
His words in his post-game press conference when asked about Caufield’s chances of playing in the playoffs were along the lines of we need everyone on the team, not just the guys who start. That was rather telling.
Despite both of their offensive struggles and similar faceoff numbers, Ducharme has given more ice time to Eric Staal than Kotkaniemi over the last month.
He also gave Staal the night to give him extra time to heal a niggling injury. That would seem to indicate that he is going to be needed by the coach.
Despite his inconsistencies, Joel Armia is a favourite of the coach and his usage over the past month would seem to suggest he’s a lock.
On the blueline, pairing Shea Weber back with Ben Chiarot seems like the safe choice while Kulak’s mobility makes too much sense to counteract the high-flying Leafs.
My team is a little different.
Toffoli – Suzuki – Caufield
Tatar – Danault – Gallagher
Anderson – Kotkaniemi – Perry
Lehkonen – Evans – Byron
Edmundson – Petry
Kulak – Chiarot
Romanov – Weber
Benching Kotkaniemi should be a non-starter. He has not been good, there’s no sugar-coating it.
But the alternative, Staal, has been equally bad, with the added minus of being one of, if not the, slowest player on the team.
Plus, with three defensively responsible centers to match up with against Matthews and Tavares, the team could ensure that Kotkaniemi is somewhat sheltered with offensive zone starts.
Finally, the play-in and playoffs last year was when he truly turned it on. Siting him in favour of an equally struggling veteran who won’t be with the team next season would be extremely foolish and could be a massive blow to his confidence.
A line with Josh Anderson and Corey Perry could be a real problem down low against the Leafs’ less physical defencemen while sheltering Perry’s lack of speed.
It was only one game, but it seems pretty obvious that Nick Suzuki and Caufield will play together for the Canadiens. At some point. Like, now.
The sophomore centreman also has chemistry with Toffoli. Two shooters with the most natural passer on the team who creates turnovers up ice? It could be a dream come true.
While there is no true board battler on the line, swapping Caufield and Anderson could be an option, especially because the rookie’s one-timer makes him so appealing on his off-side.
On the blueline, there is a clear puck handler and a clear defender on each pairing.
Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry have proven that they are the Habs' best defensive duo, especially against the speedy Leafs.
Chiarot and Weber together led to numerous offensive and neutral zone turnovers along with being hemmed in their zone for extended shifts.
If minutes are evenly distributed between the second and third pairings, it should keep Weber and Chiarot fresh while partnering more inconsistent players like Kulak and Romanov with veterans who can settle them down.
Staal misses out because his cement feet could be badly exposed against Toronto.
Joel Armia isn’t in because he is too inconsistent and doesn’t play with the appropriate level of desperation for the playoffs.
Between him and Perry, you can count on the old man to play the kind of mean, nasty hockey required this time of year.
Armia’s nature to fade in and out periods won’t be good enough.
Marrying youth and experience is the only way the Habs can set themselves up for success, not only in the present but in the future.
Toronto plays with too much speed and skill to turn to a veteran-heavy lineup. Plus, having Caufield and Kotkaniemi in the lineup gives you a better chance to produce offense than Staal and Armia.
Regardless, Ducharme, as well as general manager Marc Bergevin, will be back next season.
The organization attained its goal of making the playoffs. The details be damned.
The Leafs will be the heavy favourites against the Habs, there’s no doubt it.
Might as well try and match up as much skill as possible to provide the offense the team has been sorely lacking the last month.
The lineup will be something for the fanbase and the media to chew on repeatedly over the next week.
But at least we can all agree on one thing. Say goodbye to three games in four nights, 3-on-3 overtime and games against the Senators.
The Montreal/Toronto rivalry is about to be re-kindled in a major way. Can’t wait.