Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens outscore the New York Islanders – Montreal Wa Jobz

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Tonight was the final game for the Montreal Canadiens before a make-or-break seven game road trip. It’s an annual tradition that often decides the Canadiens’ season.

A win before the gruelling two weeks against the New York Islanders would be vital, and they got that boost of confidence with a complete effort 5-3 win.

Wilde Horses 

The talent that the Canadiens number one line is showing since coming together is giving fans a lot of hope for the future. Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield have been looking for a companion, but the search has been fruitless. That is until the arrival of a 19-year-old improving at a stunning pace.

Juraj Slafkovsky isn’t just comfortable on the top line, he is driving it offensively. If you watched the Islanders visit and the eye test told you that the line was cooking, the statistics back up your eyes perfectly.

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The numbers are stunning for the threesome. They are especially impressive considering they always face the opposition’s best players because Montreal is a one-line hockey team. The line’s expected goal number was a 75 share. The Corsi was 64. The Fenwick for the line was 82. Dominant numbers.

Every time the line was on the ice, they had the puck in the Islanders zone for almost the entire shift. Slafkovsky was a bull to take off the puck. Caufield was dancing. Suzuki was taking care of puck maintenance. With these numbers of shot share, the line will break out eventually. It is only a matter of time. They are playing this well.

The line got one on a night they deserved three or four. It was Slafkovsky who forced the action by stealing the puck as the first forechecker. It went to Suzuki at the side of the net. He fed a wide open Caufield. It was a perfect forecheck and execution.

If the Canadiens can keep their top-six and top-four healthy for a season, they’re a playoff team. It’s easy to see the breakthrough of success coming, looking at that top line. Add Alex Newhook and Kirby Dach healthy for a full season, and it starts to resemble a hockey team.

More scoring pieces are needed still. The goal total decides it. They need 285. Last year, they had 232. When the number one line breaks through as it certainly appears they will, add a healthy Dach and Newhook, and another strong scoring piece, and that 285 total finally comes into view.

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One other outstanding note as Josh Anderson finally got a little luck around the net. Anderson has had countless breakaways and clean looks, but he could not convert a single one with a goalie in the net. Finally, two ugly chances came, and he converted for goals.

The first was Anderson having a point shot hit him in the back side. He did a 180 and fired, without looking, and found the net. A short time later, he took it to the net and just kept batting away at it in the crease, until somehow the puck squeaked in.

On the stats page, history only records the number. Anderson’s number is three. It’s still shockingly low, but the monkey has, at least, gotten off his back and is now slumping in the corner for a long deserved rest.

Wilde Goats 

While most of the evening was spent appreciating the play of the top line, there is also an issue with one of its members. Cole Caufield registered a 16 shooting percentage last season when he was on his way to a 45-goal campaign before he hurt his shoulder. This season, he is at six per cent.

It is easy to call it bad luck. Perhaps much of it is just bad luck. Caufield’s shot seems to have the same velocity. He is playing well. The puck is following him around and he is dancing nicely, creating space for himself as he works into the offensive zone.

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However, with the advent of analytics, hockey experts can look at a heat map where Caufield is getting his shots away this year as compared to last year. The heat map is not what Caufield would like. Last season, he was taking far more shots from inside the dots. This year, he is outside of the dots at a much higher level.

In the first period, there was a good example as a chance came to Caufield, and being outside of the dot on the left side, the angle was not good to beat the goaltender. It might just be why Caufield is 9 percent lower in shooting this season. It’s a gigantic number.

Caufield every season in the NHL was around 12 or 13. The 16 was a bit of an outlier, and the regression to six is a huge outlier. If Caufield gets shown his heat map, perhaps, he will see that he has to work to get more in the high slot on the left side.

He is on the left side in the first place to get a better look at the net being a right handed shot. That advantage is getting negated by moving even more left into a ‘bad angle’ position. This is the advantage of analytics, because, surely it is a subconscious act on his part.

Back closer to the middle, so he can see the entire net, should be a way to get that shooting percentage to where it should be.

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Wilde Cards

It’s the most exciting time of the year for prospect watchers, and for Montreal Canadiens fans, 2023 provides another Christmas bonus. The World Junior Championships start on Boxing Day in Goteborg, Sweden and, once again, the Canadiens are well represented.

It wasn’t that long ago the Canadiens only had one or two prospects. Recently they have had eight or nine. The success is not really about scouting as much as it is the high rank that Montreal is drafting, and how many draft choices they are making during this rebuild.

This year, it is four Canadiens hopefuls that will represent their countries at the Worlds. It could have been as high as six.

Juraj Slafkovsky is eligible for Slovakia, but he is playing well in the NHL, so there is no way that he is being loaned out when the Canadiens need him. It shows how far Slafkovsky has come, and just how young he is that he is on the first line in the NHL, but could be playing at the World Juniors.

David Reinbacher would clearly be a choice for Austria, but they are not in the first tier of the championships, so it was felt that it did not help his development to lose a month to play minnows of the hockey world to try to help Austria into the top tier again. He is staying in the Swiss League.

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The four who will play in Sweden feature three returnees to the championships and one who is new to the event.

For Canada, early second round draft choice in 2022, Owen Beck returns. He was an extra-forward last season as the last cut, but then, due to injuries, ended up playing, and playing well. When Canada won gold, Beck was on the ice for the celebration.

For Slovakia, 2022 first round choice Filip Mesar returns. He had a strong tournament as part of a Slovakian team that almost eliminated Canada, if not for a magic moment from Connor Bedard in overtime of the quarter-finals. Mesar had six points in five games last year. As a huge point producer this season for the Kitchener Rangers, Mesar should be able to build on last year’s strength.

The final two Montreal representatives are from the United States. One will play a huge role and the other may not see the ice that much. Lane Hutson is expected to play a ton of minutes. He already had a strong tourney last year, and this year, he is number one on the USA defence depth chart. Hutson is averaging 28 minutes per game for Boston University.

Jacob Fowler will start as the second string goaltender for the United States. Fowler was drafted in the third round by the Canadiens in 2023. He is having a stellar start to his college career at number one ranked Boston College. Fowler begins the tourney behind Trey Augustine who started last season. However, one bad start from Augustine, and Fowler could take over the net. If not this year, then Fowler is still eligible for next year.

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While there are four players that stand out for Canadiens fans to watch, it’s also enjoyable to see how possible Canadiens of the future might fare. Keep an eye out for Konsta Helenius who will play for Finland. He is scoring at a stunningly good pace in Liiga. He is ranked at where the Canadiens are expected to draft.

With Cole Eiserman not making the American squad, the only other forward to watch as a possible early first round pick for Montreal is Canada’s Macklin Celebrini who is expected to be the first pick overall. However, Montreal would have to win the lottery for the happy miracle that he may wear the red, white, and blue one day.

Enjoy the games, and the Canadiens hopefuls. It’s always some of the best hockey of the year.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.

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