The Christmas road trip is often the make-or-break moment in the Montreal Canadiens season. If the Canadiens play well as they jaunt all over North America during the holidays, they usually have a good season. If they falter, it’s the end of the line.
This year’s trip is a daunting challenge with seven games. The goal is seven points out of 14.
Stop one was in Winnipeg. The Jets are surprisingly good this season, comfortably in a playoff spot. Montreal, meanwhile, already has two points on the board for the trip after a 3-2 overtime win.
It can get lost in all of the expert analysis that the players are human beings and they often rise and fall with the emotions that they carry each day they head to the rink. Josh Anderson recently has gone through the longest scoring drought of his life, measuring 27 games.
Anderson admitted that it was difficult. That even his grandmother was calling him, offering support that he appreciated. Anderson is no rookie. He’s a nine-year veteran of the NHL. No matter what the experience when it goes wrong, it hurts.
One of the ways it is emotionally draining is when a player considers how disappointed the fans are that you are not carrying your weight. Your teammates each day build you up. You know they are in your corner. However, what about the fans?
Anderson got his answer on Saturday night after a two-goal effort. He was announced as the first star. The standing ovation that he received lasted just shy of two minutes. Anderson touched his heart with his hand as the ovation drew to a crescendo.
It is remarkable how much a moment like this can make a difference. Against the Jets, Anderson was all over the ice. It seemed as if the puck followed him. Anderson scored the first goal of the game as he powered his way to the net and had a rebound go off him.
Still in the second period, it was Anderson on the power play. He took the puck to the net that he caught. It bounced to Christian Dvorak, and Anderson added an assist. Four points in four periods for a player who felt the weight of the world only last week.
It’s Anderson who is suddenly scoring goals and adding assists, but the fans should get an assist, too. It’s remarkable how confidence plays a part in all of this.
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Jayden Struble is another player carrying a lot of confidence in his game as well. Struble isn’t letting up in any way, making it an extremely difficult decision for management when Jordan Harris returns, which is any day. Harris is on the road trip and he travelled to Winnipeg.
Montreal has too many high-quality defenders, and could use some help offensively. One day, surely, there is a package deal to be had where GM Kent Hughes deals two rearguards to a club with an abundance of forwards, and a shortage of rearguards.
The beauty for Hughes in this equation is the defenceman is a high-value commodity in NHL circles. There aren’t a lot that can play it effectively. Most teams’ third pair is not very good, and this is where Montreal does have an advantage over many teams.
Unfortunately for Montreal, the league does not hold a high value in goaltenders. It’s not that the goalies aren’t vital; everyone knows that they are. The issue is no one really can say that someone playing at .910 now will be .910 in a month. A goalie can go so hot and cold so fast that they can embarrass a GM for acquiring one by the third period of their first game.
That’s a shame, because the Canadiens have three goalies who are all deserving of far more time in the net. On this occasion, it was Jake Allen who showed that he could be a terrific back-stopper for a club that is struggling in net like Edmonton or Carolina. Allen had 30 saves of 32 shots to key the overtime win. Justin Barron had the winning marker with a lightning bolt shot on a pass from Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki.
No doubt there will not be a trade over the Christmas holidays as that would be cruel, but the more all three shine, the sooner one will be worth an offer that Hughes has to take.
The argument won’t be made here that it is untenable. The GM has to get top value for his assets, and if it takes a while, then so be it. However, at some point, each of the three gentlemen, who are handling this with the highest of class, deserve a chance for more playing time.
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For now, the Canadiens organization has decided to blame its Laval Rocket issue on goaltending. It’s a presentable case for General Manager Kent Hughes. It’s extremely difficult to win without a good goalie, and so far this year, Laval hasn’t had one.
The Rocket are last place in the North Division of the American Hockey League in a year when the higher-talented prospect pool was supposed to be making a difference in the win-loss columns.
It’s not a league of great shooters, so more than 32 of the league’s 48 goalies have a better than .900 save percentage. Of the 48, the Rocket keepers rank 43rd and 46th. Jakub Dobes has an .882 save percentage, and Strauss Mann has an .879.
It’s a goalies’ league, but not in Laval. Hughes on Monday looked for help and found it in the veteran presence of a 30-year-old playing in Leksand, Sweden, Kasimir Kaskisuo. He comes over on a professional tryout. They must be paying for his flight, because that’s a heck of a journey for a tryout.
Kaskisuo is the perfect description for the word journeyman. He’s played in six different leagues in nine years.. He had two games in the National Hockey League with the Toronto Maple Leafs and Nashville Predators. His best season was a .914 five years ago for the AHL’s Chicago Wolves.
This year, he has only an .879 in Sweden on a very bad Leksand team. This seems like a bit of a leap, but you can’t blame it on the coach until the coach can get a save. Hughes hopes that Kaskisuo can find his .910 level which he did successfully for parts of four seasons in the AHL.
Those numbers would put him in the middle of the pack in the AHL, but that’s a lot better than now. There’s a lot of season left and an attempt has to be made to salvage it. This is attempt number one.
To be continued.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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