Well, this is getting tricky.
The Columbus Blue Jackets acquired Matt Duchene on Friday, signalling that they are aggressively ready to target a playoff spot. The Carolina Hurricanes just got Jordan Staal back after missing 32 games with a concussion, and they are also hot. The Pittsburgh Penguins will likely step it up because when you have Sidney Crosby in your lineup, stepping up is what you do.
That leaves the Montreal Canadiens as the final of the four teams vying for three playoff spots. As of yet, GM Marc Bergevin has not made a trade to show that he wants that playoff spot, too, hoping that what he has is enough already. On Saturday night, enough — or not — took on the Toronto Maple Leafs for Hockey Night In Canada, as the tradition continues. The Leafs claimed victory over the Habs, winning the contest 6-3.
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It doesn’t always feel like Andrew Shaw is big enough, fast enough, savvy enough. However, he is one of those guys who, at the end of the night, has done more than you expected. The reason, most of the time, is because he understands that good things happen in the dirty areas. Take his goal in the first period: Shaw is in front of the net, right in front of the Leafs goaltender to not only deflect the shot from Brett Kulak but then to take another two whacks at rebounds before he finally sent it home. That’s three different attempts with no one on the Leafs able to handle him. This makes 13 goals on the season for Shaw, despite missing a lot of time this year to a neck injury. Shaw also added another assist and four shots in the first period and drew a penalty. He’s an effective player most of the time, and his teammates love him as well. He’s one of the great personalities in a very strong room this year.
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Tomas Tatar just keeps on going. In the first period, he absolutely rifled one into the top corner with the perfect shot. That is 21 on the season for Tatar and one hell of a throw-in on a trade. Tatar has a career high of 29 goals in a season. He is now on pace for 28 goals this year and might just be able to capture the milestone of 30 the way he has been playing lately. He’s saving his best hockey of the season for this stretch drive.
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Still the first period, even the power play went to work. Again, it was an absolutely perfect shot into the top corner by a Habs player. It was Jeff Petry who skated in, untouched, from the blue line to snipe one over the glove. Fans were suggesting that the Habs had the book on Frederik Andersen to go glove-side on him. If the book is to take the absolute perfect hockey shot into the top corner, then yes, they have a book on him. It was a dominant first period for the Habs, as they outshot the Maple Leafs 20-10 and outscored them 3-0.
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Max Domi definitely is a better player in a big-market environment on a big-market team. Domi had fire in his eyes the entire game knowing it was being shown all across Canada and that it meant so much to both franchises and cities involved. Watch that level of competition and compare it against what was seen last season in Phoenix, and you can truly see what was ailing him. He was sleepwalking, at times, for the Coyotes but has not shown that side of himself in three-quarters of a season in Montreal. Domi is a true competitor with the CH on his chest. Cross-checking. Big Hits. Strong forechecking. Legs churning. He’s a terrific player and a terrific player to watch. The event feels important to fans just by watching him burn.
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One of the worst goats in this one was the boards. A simple clearing attempt by the Leafs changed the game when Carey Price went to retrieve the puck on a dump-in, as a goalie is trained to do 100 per cent of the time. The puck hit a rut in the boards and instead of going behind the net, where Price was waiting, it went back in front of the net where William Nylander greeted it and an open cage at exactly the same time. Out of absolutely nothing, it is 3-3. In such a massively important game, the Habs gave up the lead. They were reeling over that, as the Habs were immediately back on their heels. It was a game that they controlled, and suddenly, all momentum was lost. There is simply nothing you can do about it. You have to go get the puck, if you are Price. You cannot play for the one-in-a-million chance it takes a bad bounce and not help your defence. This is just the way it goes, sometimes, in the world of sports. Unfortunate that it happened at such a vital moment.
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During the morning skate, Shaw was asked: “What is the best way to beat the Leafs?” He answered: “Stay out of the box.” The Leafs were out of the game when, in the second period, the Habs took three straight minors, and one of the best power plays in the league scored twice to make it 3-2. The Leafs did very little five-on-five in this one, but on the power play, they are formidable. Auston Matthews went five-hole on one that Price probably wanted to have back, then Tyler Ennis had a gaping net on one that Price had no chance to save. It was 3-2 after two as the Habs let the Leafs back into the game.The final death for the Habs came with two minutes remaining when Phillip Danault made a rare, massive mistake. Danault has been extremely reliable overall this season. He almost never ends up on the wrong side of the ledger, but his giveaway blindly inside his own zone was perhaps his worst error as a Habs player since he came from Chicago. Danault had the puck without pressure on him. It was on his forehand. He had a lot of room in front of him to hold the puck and look for options. He instead held it for the briefest of moments, then gave it away to open space that the Leafs filled. One second later, it was in the net. It is the worst loss of the season for the Habs. They led the game 3-0 and lost it 6-3. They had it but took vital penalties, got a bad bounce against them and made too many mistakes. This one hurts, for sure. It is one of those losses that defines a season. Recovering from this will not be easy, but recover they must because the teams chasing them are not going away.
GM Marc Bergevin has been rumoured to be involved in many of the myriad trades expected in the next two days. However, there has been nothing tangible. Cam Fowler looked like a Bergevin target when he watched the Anaheim Ducks on consecutive nights, but the Ducks say that they are not dealing Fowler. The Fourth Period and Sportsnet both suggested that Bergevin was in on Duchene, but nothing came of it. The latest is that Bergevin travelled to New York to watch the Rangers and the New Jersey Devils. Hard to know who he could be targeting there, considering most of the players expected to be traded are already sitting on the sidelines to avoid an injury that could ruin their seasons. Here’s what is likely, based on history, because Bergevin certainly has patterns. The GM likes to load up on fourth-liners and depth defencemen near the deadline. It does not always go well, as evidenced by Andreas Martinsen and Steve Ott. It sometimes goes very well, as evidenced by Jordie Benn and Petry. Expect that the Habs will get support pieces before Monday afternoon’s deadline, especially a support piece on the blue line, where the Habs are very thin, considering injuries are so common. It is hard to know whether they will make a big splash. It is rare, but this season also sees the Habs on the cusp for the first time. They need some help to get a playoff spot. Bergevin is in a tricky spot: he also has a first-round draft choice to offer that could be 22nd if the Habs go on a roll or 14th if they don’t. This is a massive difference in draft quality. The 14th pick overall has a 68 per cent success rate, while the 22nd only has a 54 per cent rate through the years. All we can know for sure is it is going to be extremely interesting.
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