When it became clear that the Montreal Canadiens would be facing the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup qualifier, it became evident that it would provide a measuring stick for the team, even (and perhaps especially) in defeat.
Through the first two games, the Canadiens weaknesses have been exposed, and it is providing a clearer view of what improvements need to be targeted. There have also been potential questions that have already been answered.
So much has been said about the left defence of the team. However, it is quickly becoming less of a concern. For the 2020-21 season, if you expect Ben Chiarot and Alexander Romanov to be locks, you quickly need to be adding Brett Kulak to that group. Kulak has been really good, and his mistake that led to the 2-1 goal on Monday night was jarring because he has made so few of them.
He absolutely deserves a spot in the Canadiens top six going forward. If you add Victor Mete and even Xavier Ouellet to the conversation, that even takes a lot of pressure off of Romanov to be NHL-ready immediately. Either way the Canadiens have options now that Kulak has stepped up against really tough competition.
Situations can always be improved, obviously. There are other places that need improvement more urgently.
Going into the series, the depth at forward was always going to be a question mark. The four centres Phillip Danault, Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi (more on them later), and Max Domi are great, and you can order them in any way you want more or less. The issue becomes with the wingers. The fourth line of Domi, Dale Weise, and Jordan Weal is an easy place to start.
The fourth line hasn’t been bad in the sense of it costing the Canadiens much, but there needs to be more of an offensive threat and Domi can’t do it on his own. Luckily the Canadiens do have some options with Jake Evans, Charles Hudon, Ryan Poehling and if healthy Alex Belzile.
The problem isn’t even alleviated if you swap Domi with another forward. Add more to that line, and run with it. The next two games Montreal has last change. It’s a perfect time to try something.
The real issue is that there needs to be a better option throughout, and that can only come in the off-season. I will note that this team would look a lot different — and better — with Ilya Kovalchuk and Nick Cousins as options up front. The off-season will provide Marc Bergevin with time to focus on that.
The Kids are Alright
Throughout the season, Canadiens fans saw enough to not be surprised by Nick Suzuki’s performance in game one. In a lot of ways, people expected it. He has been great in his rookie season, and there’s no reason to believe he won’t continue on his path to becoming a really good player.
People were less convinced with Jesperi Kotkaniemi. After a solid rookie season, he struggled with injuries, confidence, and inconsistency this season. He was sent to Laval and people were concerned he would never live up to his third overall billing.
Aside from the two goals, I think rumours of Kotkaniemi’s demise were greatly exaggerated. He is showing exactly why it was worth a shot to take him third overall. He’s all over the ice and he’s making things happen. The two goals he scored also came at very important times. He may not be ready for a bigger role yet, but let’s not forget that despite his NHL experience, he’s 11 months younger than Suzuki. We’ve already seen what a difference four months can make.
The Price is Right
Carey Price has proven almost everybody who has questioned his play wrong. Whether it’s due to the rest, or due to the playoff intensity, or due to an improved team in front of him, or a mixture of all three Price is so noticeably better right now that it’s making you jump up and take notice.
I’m not even talking about the saves he’s making. I’m talking about how he looks while making those saves. He’s attacking shooters, he’s engaged, he’s fighting. He even skated over to a scrum behind him and tried to pull players apart. This is Carey Price at his best.
And in a way it proves that the team has relied on him too much. When Price plays 58 games out of 71, it’s far too many. You don’t see the same engagement, you don’t see the same fight, and you don’t see Carey Price at his best.
That’s not Price’s fault, and it’s not even Claude Julien’s fault. The Canadiens need a backup goaltender they can trust enough to play often and remain competitive. They tried with Antti Niemi, and with Keith Kinkaid and we know the results. Luckily for the Canadiens, the answer may already be in the organization. If not, they have the cap room to improve that area with an established option. Price’s play in this series is proving how much a second goaltender can help and that it may be worth investing in.
The new way to go is to have two goaltenders. So many teams entering the playoffs had questions of who their starter would be. A rested Price is the Price we’re seeing now. And it’s important that we’re taking note of it, and more importantly, why we’re seeing it.