The Montreal Canadiens kicked off a three-game road trip in New Jersey on the first night. Despite skepticism about their performance throughout the NHL, except within their own locker room, the Canadiens have managed to remain in the wild card hunt.
Surprisingly, they have excelled against formidable opponents this season, and the trend continued against a well-rested and prepared New Jersey team. In Newark, the Canadiens once again defied expectations, securing an upset with a 3-2 victory.
In the last six weeks, the same group of players has consistently emerged as the heroes for the team, particularly the top line that offers a promising glimpse into the future. This line has been the primary source of scoring for the team, and in the first period of the latest game, Nick Suzuki’s aggressive forecheck set the stage for an impressive play.
Suzuki’s pressure forced an awkward pass behind the net, which was skillfully batted to the front by Cole Caufield. Juraj Slafkovsky capitalized on the opportunity, scoring his sixth goal of the season and marking a noteworthy run for the former first overall pick in 2022.
In the third period, it was Caufield himself who secured the game-winning goal, displaying resilience and contributing to his respectable goal total of 14. The top line’s analytics have been strong, maintaining a 56 percent overall share of expected goals at 5-on-5, making them the standout line on the team.
While currently relying heavily on the top line’s talent, the team envisions a stronger lineup with the return of key players like Kirby Dach, Alex Newhook, and potentially Joshua Roy. Roy, in his third NHL game, showcased significant improvement, demonstrating strong forechecking, exceptional vision, and scoring his first NHL goal in a spectacular fashion.
Roy’s performance ignited hope for the team’s future, adding to the potential depth from forwards one to twelve. Despite the team’s struggles in star scoring and the absence of a clear second line, there is an unspoken strength in the Canadiens’ forward depth. The organization boasts promising talents in the juniors, such as Filip Mesar and Owen Beck, who are excelling in the Ontario Hockey League.
In goal, Samuel Montembeault continues to shine, displaying remarkable performances in January with a .930 save percentage. Despite his late start in the NHL, Montembeault has earned his place as a top-tier goalie, consistently stealing victories for the team.
The goalie’s outstanding saves on breakaways and close-range shots against New Jersey further solidify his status as a standout performer. It’s time to recognize Montembeault not just for playing great but for being a great asset to the team.
The Canadiens secured consecutive victories against Colorado and New Jersey this week. As of January 17, they find themselves just four points away from a wild card spot. Despite facing challenges such as the season-long absence of two crucial centers, Kirby Dach and Christian Dvorak, and the loss of key winger Alex Newhook for four months, the team has defied expectations by achieving this level of success. No goats for these stunning results, and this club that stays in the fight.
As March approaches, there is a divergence in perspectives among Canadiens fans, with some optimistically hoping for a playoff berth and others eyeing a high draft pick, favoring losses. While it’s still too early to definitively predict the team’s trajectory, one measure suggests a higher likelihood of securing a top draft pick.
The concept of ‘strength of schedule’ becomes crucial with half a season remaining, distinguishing teams facing challenging opponents from those encountering lower-ranked teams. Unfortunately for the Canadiens, their upcoming schedule ranks as the fourth most difficult in the entire league, featuring opponents with a collective winning percentage of .577. Matchups against formidable teams like Boston, Carolina, and Vancouver are still on the horizon, although the Canadiens have demonstrated resilience against strong opponents in the past.
Compounding the challenge for the Canadiens is the fact that many of the teams contending for a playoff spot have relatively easier schedules. This might be welcome news for pessimistic fans hoping for a higher draft pick.
Remarkably, nearly every team in the bottom third of the league standings has an advantageous schedule. Only the Ottawa Senators and Columbus Blue Jackets face tougher opponents, while teams like Buffalo, San Jose, Anaheim, Chicago, Calgary, St. Louis, and Minnesota have comparatively easier paths.
This scenario suggests that teams vying for a lower position in the standings have a reasonable chance of achieving this, especially when they face each other. For instance, when Calgary plays Minnesota, someone must secure the points.
As the season progresses, matchups like Montreal facing Boston while Buffalo takes on Ottawa become significant, and these scenarios are likely to be recurring. Consequently, the road to the playoffs appears more challenging for the Canadiens than the path to securing a high draft pick.
Nevertheless, the outcome remains uncertain, and the fighting spirit evident in the Canadiens’ locker room may prove decisive. Despite a demanding schedule, the team has shown resilience against formidable opponents like the Rangers, Jets, Stars, Oilers, and the Avalanche throughout the season, and this tenacity may continue to shape their journey.