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Through four games, most people would say that the 2022-23 Montreal Canadiens are exceeding expectations. A young defence corps has largely held up to the stresses of NHL attackers, Cole Caufield has already tripled his goal output from the first half of last season, and the goaltending has been solid and occasionally spectacular. The team has not only been competitive, but has actually earned hard-fought victories over favoured opponents. Heck, with two wins already in the bank, the Habs should not pick up any other points until November 3rd if they want to match last year’s pace and aim for back-to-back lottery wins.
On Thursday night, in a season full of new experiences, the Habs yet again wander into uncharted territory.
Tale of the Tape
|43.8% (26th)||Scoring-chances-for %||29.9% (32nd)|
|2.00 (31st)||Goals per game||3.00 (20th)|
|2.75 (13th)||Goals against per game||4.67 (30th)|
|7.7% (29th)||PP%||38.5% (3rd)|
|91.7% (8th)||PK%||71.4% (23rd)|
|0-2-0||H2H Record (21-22)||2-0-0|
The Arizona Coyotes are not a good hockey team. “The worst team constructed in modern hockey” (courtesy Steve Dangle) might be a bit hyperbolic, but only a bit. The Coyotes are widely predicted to finish dead last in the NHL by some margin. They, like the Habs, failed to win a game during the pre-season. Unlike the Habs, they also lost their season-opener, as well as the next game after, giving up six goals in both matches.
So of course they would go on to defeat the Toronto Maple Leafs at home and come into Montreal on a winning note.
Still, Arizona’s two points in three games sees them second-last in their division, spared from the basement only by a historic meltdown in the Minnesota Wild net. In terms of the roster, the forward contingent comprises a few notable names: Clayton Keller, Christian Fischer, Lawson Crouse, Nick Bjugstad, Zack Kassian, and Nick Ritchie. Alongside them skate players in unexpected situations, such as top-line winger and veteran of seven AHL seasons Liam O’Brien and 29-year-old journeyman second-line centre Travis Boyd. Star prospects Dylan Guenther (ninth overall, 2021) and Barrett Hayton (fifth overall, 2018) are the cherry on top of this well-mixed sundae.
On the blue line, the top pairing consists of sophomore J.J. Moser (60th overall, 2021) and off-season free agent acquisition Troy Stecher. Shayne Gostisbehere forms an offensive-minded duo with journeyman Josh Brown. Finally, the third pairing consists of Dysin Mayo (133rd overall, 2014) and waiver pickup Juuso Välimäki. Jakub Chychrun, the subject of many trade rumours, will make the trip to Montreal but will not suit up for the game.
Twenty-six-year-old Karel Vejmelka has started all three games, putting up an .894 save percentage and a 4.35 goals-against average. The backup is Connor Ingram, whose only NHL experience is three playoff losses against the Colorado Avalanche last year after Juuse Saros was injured in Game 1.
Truthfully, HockeyDB, Hockey Reference, Wikipedia, and Elite Prospects are all doing a lot of work here.
If there is one place where Arizona can do some damage, it is on the power play. Through three games, only four Coyotes have registered a point at five-on-five. Yet the team has scored nine goals in total, emphasizing how good special teams can elevate an otherwise mediocre club. Surprisingly, the man-advantage marksman for the Arizona contingent has thus far been Ritchie (three tallies on five shots). He, Keller, Gostisbehere, Moser, and Boyd are the reason why the team’s power play is humming along at 38.5% proficiency. Against them stands a Canadiens penalty kill that has only allowed one goal while facing the likes of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Alexander Ovechkin, and Auston Matthews.
The question isn’t whether the Canadiens can win this game or not. That answer is definitively yes. Heck, it’s not a stretch to say that the Canadiens should win this game. However, the Canadiens, over the last few years, have had a frustratingly noticeable tendency to play down to their opposition — and they haven’t had the top-end skill to bail out 55 minutes of bad effort with five minutes of inspired play. A second straight start-to-finish solid effort would go a long way toward demonstrating that these Canadiens plan to be different going forward — keeping pace with last season be damned.