A busy week continued for the Montreal Canadiens Tuesday night with a home date against the New Jersey Devils, immediately following a Monday win of 3-1 over the Sabres in Buffalo.
Advantage went to the Devils in terms of rest and preparation, and they took advantage with a 5-2 victory.
The Canadiens are enjoying good results so far this season, but better than wins or losses is the improved play of the young guns who will lead this club to excellence, or they will not. This season is about development and the early returns continue to be strong.
What an absolute bonus if Justin Barron turned into the player that made him a first-round draft choice. Barron struggled last season with his decision-making as the game was simply moving too fast compared to juniors. However, this season, he seems a better player.
He played his best NHL game on Monday night, scoring once and taking a regular shift. The next night his reward was playing on the top pairing with Mike Matheson. In the first period, Barron started a rush down the right side, then rounded the net to score his second goal in two games.
It was a terrific shot into the top corner. Barron looks comfortable now. He makes smart decisions now. Late in the first period, Barron was being pressured and last year he would have just thrown it up the boards and given up possession. This time, he held and held until the play opened up for him. He then made the right pass.
The cornerstone of being a good defenceman is handling this moment well. Feeling the pressure, but surviving it to start a club up ice effectively.
Barron’s partnership looked good. Barron had another chance in the third period with a 25-foot wrist shot. Matheson scored a gorgeous goal going end to end.
The Devils can throw a lot of speed and talent at a defending crew. It was a tough test, and all the sophomores again handled it well. Arber Xhekaj is getting power play time and handling it well, getting shots through to the net. Jordan Harris and Jonathan Kovacevic are quietly effective.
They were all trying to be strong for Cayden Primeau, who got his first start of the season. Primeau had a five-star save in the first period. It was a 2-on-1 with Ondrej Palat getting the cross-ice pass and having an open net.
Primeau didn’t give up on it. He dove across and made the save flying across the ice. Primeau actually got a standing ovation for the stop.
Primeau was strong, facing a high number of quality shots as the Devils, led by Jack Hughes, looked extremely talented.
Primeau’s future is still uncertain. The organization doesn’t want to send him to the minors because they are worried that he will be claimed on waivers. However, they have three healthy goalies, so it’s a difficult situation with not enough time in the net for all three.
If Primeau can show he is ready, it could create an interesting situation. It’s alright to carry three goals for a while, but eventually, the call has to be made.
The referees are clearly trying to set a tone this season, calling more penalties in a hope that the players will comply eventually to play cleaner hockey. So far, the attempt is not working all that well. The reason is the type of infraction that they seem to be cracking down on.
The Canadiens are taking a shocking number of penalties due to being strong. Arber Xhekaj has taken around five alone this season where he has so much strength that his opponent simply falls down from an arm push or a shoulder shove.
Call of the Wilde!
Barron suffered a couple of soft calls in this contest as well. Kovacevic outmuscled his man and the ref seemed to think that it was a foot intertwined, but the skate was never in the mix.
It’s a great idea to try to clean up the NHL. In the playoffs, it is exasperating when there is holding and hooking so prevalent, it barely looks like hockey in overtime of game six in the third round for the Stanley Cup.
What the men in stripes need to be doing is cracking down on holding, interference and hooking. Crack down on the infractions that slow down the game, and turn the B-grade hockey player into a much more effective player against the stars because they’re allowed to hold them back.
That would be terrific for the game. Stop the hooks. Stop the holds. Allow the strength battles.
It should be noted that there is no suggestion here that the Canadiens aren’t at fault as well. They have been undisciplined and do lead the league in penalty minutes. They are also one of the worst in the league at killing penalties. This one, they allowed essentially three power play goals and an empty-netter. Again, the 5-on-5 play is not the issue.
Last season, the Canadiens set a record of man-games lost due to injury — this, after breaking the previous team record the year before. The organization was so flummoxed by the loss of manpower that they fired the training staff.
Five games into this season, they’re on pace to make it three straight seasons with the highest man-games lost to injury. Montreal has only played five games, yet three players are out, and two of them with significant injuries.
Kirby Dach is gone for the season with an ACL and MCL tear. He will need reconstructive surgery that leaves him hopeful for next September. This is a serious injury. Recovery ranges from eight to 12 months depending on the knee takes to recovery.
The next game, Kaiden Guhle continued his run of misfortune, injuring his upper-body. The thought is that it is his wrist, but there has been no confirmation from the public relations department who have only said upper-body. Thankfully, he is listed as day-to-day, and shouldn’t be out for too long.
However, only Tuesday morning, more horrendous news: David Savard took a shot off his hand during the Buffalo contest in the third period. The Canadiens announced in the evening that he would be out six to eight weeks with a fracture. Surgery will not be required.
It can’t get worse than this: Three injuries in only five games. Sadly, that’s what we said in 2021 and it got worse in 2022, and it is trending to just as bad in 2023.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.
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