NBCSN’s coverage of the 2020-21 NHL season continues with Thursday’s matchup between the Montreal Canadiens and Vancouver Canucks. Coverage begins at 9:30 p.m. ET on NBCSN. You can watch the game online and on the NBC Sports app by clicking here.
There was some hype around the Canadiens entering the shortened 2020-21 NHL season, sure. After a stellar offseason, that’s what will happen.
With their two wins over the Oilers, the Habs are showed they have the potential to be who we thought they were. It’s early, and not all wins, or losses, are statements, though there are going to be more of those with a condensed schedule.
There are signs in the game within the game, though, the Canadiens really do have something there, if they can only hold consistency.
Monday against the Oilers was ripe with examples. Not only did the Habs shut down Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid, arguably the two best offensive players in the league, but they became the sixth team in two years to hold the Oilers down on the power play in two consecutive games.
In a vacuum that’s impressive, but perhaps moreso if you consider how bleak the penalty kill has looked in their opener with Toronto, allowing two power play goals in an overtime defeat, and the three against the Canucks on Wednesday.
Not only did the Habs shut out the Oilers on the man advantage, they did it seven times.
“That’s what we liked when we acquired certain players, I was happy with the number of players I could use shorthanded,” Habs head coach Claude Julien said Monday’s game. “First of all we’re more fresh, secondly we’re more aggressive.”
A sweep over the Oilers, at Edmonton, isn’t nothing, either. A long trip out west is tough for any team, but in a Canadian bubble where a lot of the teams on the schedule are cross-country, it’s more challenging for that entire division this season.
Danault produces these numbers while playing a large percentage of his ice-time against elite comp; like no other forward (per @PuckIQ )
— Jason Paul 🥥 (@WaveIntel) January 15, 2021
It wasn’t just the penalty kill that shut down the Oilers stars either, though; the duo didn’t do much five-on-five, adding a single assist and just four shots on goal.
That’s wildly impressive, especially when it was a line run by second-year player Nick Suzuki and fellow youngster Phillip Danault who put in work to shut those two down, along with rookie Jake Evans, who spent five-plus minutes working the penalty kill.
“I know they had some great chances on the power play in those two games as well and our goaltender came up big” said Julien to reporters. “So, there’s a lot of things we did well against them. The reason we’re coming out of here with four points is probably because we were able to really nullify that 1-2 punch that can win games on their own.”
With the rough showing in Vancouver on Wednesday, the five-on-five stats take on more importance.
Nick Suzuki just broke an Oilers ankles lmao pic.twitter.com/Q7C8lCp96S
— Scott Matla (@scottmatla) January 17, 2021
Now, of concern is how many penalties the Canadiens took to even be in that position, which they did again with the seven penalties against the Canucks. That’s something to keep an eye on; relying on the penalty kill all the time isn’t sustainable in the long term. Especially when, on Monday, there was a stretch of seven minutes of shorthanded time for the Habs. It’s not everyday any team will come out of that unscathed.
Jake Allen‘s Montreal debut on Monday also put the Canadiens in a position to win; early on, Edmonton’s five-on-five offense peppered him early, and he kept them off the board to give the penalty kill its shining moment.
The North Division has plenty of flash; McDavid and Draisaitl in Edmonton with the firepower in Toronto and young guns in Vancouver, and even the Habs offensive threats make for some fun hockey.
But what could put the Canadiens in a strong position for the postseason could come from the little things, like the penalty kill and defense — and, discipline that led to so many kills in the first place. That’s what Julien teams are known for, but this Habs squad seems like its best equipped to put that style in action and succeed if they can get consistency behind them.