It was almost a perfect game for the Montreal Canadiens on Monday night. They stayed close to their fast, pressure-all-over-the-ice identity. They smothered the Flames, and with a couple of key saves and timely goals, they walked out with the win.
It was a Phillip Danault kind of game, one in which hard work triumphs.
The Habs’ first-line centre didn’t get on the scoresheet, but he was still incredibly dominant, the best player on the ice for the majority of his shifts. He won board battles, communicated consistently with teammates to secure the defensive end — very useful when you have a new linemate like Ilya Kovalchuk — and even pulled off some cheeky moves in transition to push his team on the attack.
This was perhaps my favourite sequence:
Danault starts low in the defensive zone, but the play soon moves to a breakout. He needs to catch up, so he starts his motor. The centreman doesn’t stop striding from his goal line to the top of the circle in the opposing zone, about two dozens hard pushes that leads him past a first opponent and right on the back of a second, with the Flames defenceman about to retrieve the puck after a dump-in.
After skating almost the length of the ice, Danault really gets to work. He lifts the stick of the opposing defenceman and gets a touch on the puck. It springs loose on the wall, but a second opponent comes to help. Nothing that an extended sweeping pokecheck can’t take care of.
Kovalchuk swings by, but he doesn’t really intervene in the scrum. He knows he doesn’t need to; two opponents are no match for a single Danault. Kovalchuk simply pushes the puck back to Danault, and goes to position himself into space. His centreman picks up possession and holds on to it against back pressure until a passing lane opens up to his teammate. Finally, he slides it over when there is no chance of a turnover, and moves to battle at the front of the net for a rebound off a point shot.
We often talk about the impact Brendan Gallagher has on the team, the way he leads by example, but Danault is built on the exact same model. In the absence of his goal-scoring linemate, Danault stepped up to help get the Habs two points they really needed.
Ryan Poehling’s poise
Poehling’s goal was a sign of a renewed poise in his game. The intense but jittery youngster that came up for his first NHL games this season would have likely shot at the goalie the second he got the puck in the slot off that faceoff. The pressure of the moment would have been too big and the immediate opportunity too inviting.
He showed signs that he is now starting to feel comfortable again. His confidence has risen back to the point where he was able to transfer the pressure of the play onto the goalie. The Flames’ netminder expected the shot and went down early, but Poehling took the puck around the blue paint. It transformed a good opportunity into a great one for the rookie.
The play wasn’t too surprising, however. Just a shift earlier he had shown the same patience. Off a two-on-one that rapidly transformed itself into a two-on-two with a defender catching up to Nick Cousins, Poehling sent the puck into space for his linemate to retrieve it. He didn’t force a long-range shot or a pass that would have been intercepted. This way, the offence lived on.
After a won board battle, Poehling got the puck back and once again looked for the best play possible. He looked off Kotkaniemi, who was surrounded by defenders, and took the puck behind the net, came out the other way, attracted his linemates’ coverage, and tried to reach him with a pass in open space. The feed missed by an inch, but the idea was right.
Last night, Poehling showed the strengths that made him successful in his college days, and will eventually have him making more of an impact in the NHL.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s creativity
Allow me to add to the article I wrote on Sunday about Kotkaniemi. Yes, the Finnish centreman is still in the early phases of his NHL development. Yes, he hasn’t taken the steps forward he could have this year. And yes, his current role shines the spotlight on some of his weaknesses. But the reason why he is playing in the NHL and deserves his spot in the top league in the world is that he can make plays like this one:
The sequence starts with an aggressive defensive read in the offensive zone. Kotkaniemi, who has found himself at the point after an exchange with Victor Mete, pinches up on the Flames’ breakout. It’s a risky decision, but Kotkaniemi sees that the attacker’s head is down. The sophomore’s reach means he gets to the puck before he’s seen, and his long swipe delays the opposing rush and allows teammates to catch up.
More than the defensive play, it’s the zone entry that follows when the Canadiens get the puck back that deserves highlighting. Kotkaniemi gets a pass from Jordan Weal in the neutral zone and finds himself against three defenders. Cousins is late in support, so Kotkaniemi baits a pokecheck, avoids it by pulling the puck back and breaks in the zone against an off-balance defender. He then cuts laterally along the blue line, pulling another defender to him and creating space underneath for a drop-pass back to Weal. The winger gets a runway to the top of the circle to fire on net from the play of Kotkaniemi.
The blue line was well-guarded, and most other players would have dumped the puck in the corner against those three defenders. But Kotkaniemi is not most players. He finds ways to create offence when there are none open at first glance.