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The future is now ... because it’s all the Canadiens have

Wednesday night against the Avalanche was a sign of progress for some of the Habs’ most promising players. The rest of the roster, on the other hand....

Montreal Canadiens v Colorado Avalanche Photo by Michael Martin/NHLI via Getty Images

Whether he meant to or not, head coach Martin St-Louis made a statement when he started overtime with Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Kaiden Guhle.

Hang on, one might say. What’s so special about starting three-on-three with your two best offensive talents?

Because of their likely opposition.

Since the Colorado Avalanche were more than likely to open the extra frame with Mikko Rantanen and Cale Makar, a different coach might have elected to try to absorb that shift with more defensive-oriented players and then deploy Suzuki and Caufield in a more favourable situation. Canadiens fans will have witnessed this tactic during the Claude Julien days.

But St-Louis had pitched Suzuki versus Rantanen — best-on-best — all night long, and amazingly enough, it was the Habs’ biggest guns who were coming out on top. Suzuki, alongside Caufield and Kirby Dach, bludgeoned Colorado’s top defensive pairing of Makar and Devon Toews during regulation time, with the Canadiens captain putting up an astonishing 95.9% five-on-five on-ice expected goal share (xGF%) against the reigning Norris Trophy-winner.

As for Guhle, the Prince Albert Raiders and Edmonton Oil Kings product has always had a knack for adapting and growing on the fly. Nonetheless, few would have envisioned that he would be the Canadiens’ top defenceman by ice-time (25:22!) against the defending Stanley Cup champions, before Christmas during his rookie season. And these weren’t necessarily bad minutes either. In 13:07 against Rantanen at five-on-five, Guhle was on the ice for four shots for and five shots against. To put that into perspective, in the 9:14 when Rantanen wasn’t facing Guhle, the Avalanche registered 12 shots for and allowed two against.

Suzuki, Caufield, and Guhle’s place in the spotlight at the start of overtime was well deserved, and a reward for how well they had handled the league’s elite on the night. But it also drew attention to the shadow over the rest of the roster. Suzuki, Caufield, and Dach were just about the only bright lights (apart from Anthony Richard’s first NHL goal and another superlative performance from Jake Allen) for the Habs in what was otherwise a desperate battle for survival.

Remember, the Avalanche outshot the Canadiens 36-20 on the night, including a ridiculous 24-8 advantage after the first period. If the likes of Suzuki and Guhle held their opposition to parity and beyond, what was the rest of the team doing?

Well, the blunt answer is: not very much.

The entirety of the Habs’ middle six — Juraj Slafkovsky (the low: 11.7%), Josh Anderson, Jonathan Drouin, Christian Dvorak, Mike Hoffman, and Evgenii Dadonov (the high: 28.3%) — were below 30% five-on-five xGF% for the evening. Aside from the goal, the fourth line of Richard (31.8% xGF), Jake Evans (16.1%), and Joel Armia (31.9%) also found little traction against the waves of burgundy and blue.

Furthermore, this was a Colorado Avalanche team that, while not in the dire straits of a few weeks prior, still featured the likes of Ben Meyers and Andreas Englund in the lineup. The game plan, on paper, was to weather the Rantanens and Makars and then take advantage of the players pressed into service by injuries to their more illustrious colleagues. Instead, the Habs’ best admirably held the Avs’ best in check, but the Habs’ depth came up woefully lacking.

Secondary scoring has long posed a headache for St-Louis, but as the season progresses further with no solution in sight, it is becoming a headache for Kent Hughes as well. Other than Sean Monahan, none of the Canadiens veterans have particularly crowned themselves in glory the way that Artturi Lehkonen did the year prior. Hughes did remarkably well last season to secure two first round selections (one for Tyler Toffoli and one for Ben Chiarot), as well as first-rounder Justin Barron (for Lehkonen), but he will have to pull out all of his tricks to achieve anything close to a similar haul for his current wares.

For the sake of the Canadiens short- and long-term progression, someone other than the kids will have to step up.

The sooner, the better.