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Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens return from break, dump Washington Capitals 5-2

The 10-day break is over for the Montreal Canadiens.

Now, it’s time for the final stretch, which started with a 5-2 win over the Capitals in Washington. Samuel Montembeault was the star of the game as the Caps outplayed Montreal, but they struggled to finish their chances.

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The game was an outstanding start for the Canadiens as they caught the Caps still enjoying the All-Star Break in the first period. Montreal had a 7-1 shots on goal advantage early, and a two-goal lead.

All the offence came early from the team’s top line. They’re going to have to be great for the rest of the season, because they are basically all of the scoring talent that is left right now. Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, and Juraj Slafkovsky led the charge.

The opening goal was an absolute beauty as Caufield stole the puck at the blue line. He laid a perfect cross-ice saucer pass that landed right on the stick of Suzuki, who one-timed a shot into the top shelf.

Less than a minute later, it was the top line still on the ice for a second marker. Suzuki was in the corner where he jumped on a rebound from a bad angle. Former Canadiens goalie Charlie Lindgren didn’t look sharp on that tally.

Caufield has points in 10 straight games. He has 13 points in that span. Ten games is a small sample size, but 13 points is a number that says that Caufield does have the ability to be a points-per-game player. Suzuki may have the ability as well. With a career high of 66 points, Suzuki is on pace for 74 this season.

It is just a matter of having some support. For the line to have these excellent numbers when the opposition can key on them is remarkable. Suzuki and Caufield face the best defenders and best forwards every single game. There is never any relief.

Now imagine a scenario where the second line is just as good in the future as the first line. That makes the Suzuki line better as well. This also makes the team significantly better.

Throw in a third and fourth line with some depth, and a player or two coming soon who can contribute offence, and you have a hockey team. The club will have to get healthy, for once, but this Montreal team competing is closer than it looks.

For now, enjoy watching the top-two scorers, and the first overall pick Slafkovsky as he grows his game on the top line, because contributions from others is an unexpected bonus.

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For example, the Canadiens made it 3-0 on a shot from Michael Pezzetta for only his third goal of the season. That was it for Lindgren who was pulled for Darcy Kuemper. Lindgren allowed three goals on nine shots.

In the third period, the Canadiens put the game away with a 4-on-4 tally. It was Slafkovsky with a great drag move on a wrist shot from 15 feet. If that was a glimpse of the future for Slafkovsy, get the shades, it looks bright.

Five minutes later, it was the moment that everyone has been waiting for on the Canadiens power play. If Slafkovsky is going to put up big numbers as a pro, then he has to be able to one-time slap shots from the right side half-wall on passes from the defenceman.

It finally happened. Suzuki to Matheson, he looked left, then passed right. Slafkovsky wired the shot into the far corner. That’s nine on the year for Slafkovsky with two goals on the night. That is the type of moment that will lift even the most negative that the Canadiens may have drafted the right player at one overall.

It wasn’t just a goal for Slafkovsky. It was a breakthrough moment. It was a moment that showed it is there, and now he can begin to replicate it regularly. A curl and drag goal and a one-time slap shot goal for Slafkovsky. You can’t get better than that.

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The only issue is General Manager Kent Hughes asking himself just how many players he has to ship out to get a good losing streak going. Montreal is not making the playoffs, so a high draft pick would be the first order of business for the GM. However, they refuse to put a losing run together.

Hughes must be shaking his head in disbelief. Montreal is in the mix with five teams so close in points. The Canadiens could get a losing skid going to draft fifth, or this injury-riddled lineup could keep shocking to the upside to cause Montreal to draft 12th.

Gone are Gallagher, Dvorak, Dach, Newhook, Monahan. Take away as many as you want, it doesn’t seem to matter as they refuse to lose touch with .500.

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The big event during the long break for the Canadiens was the trading of Sean Monahan to the Winnipeg Jets for a first-round draft pick in 2024. The pick will likely be at around the 25 mark which is a spot that has a 50-50 chance of landing an NHL player. It also has, at best, a five-per cent chance of landing a star.

While the math isn’t that outstanding that the drafted player will be a player that moves the needle, it is better than Monahan leaving for nothing as an unrestricted free agent.

Also, General Manager Kent Hughes has an opportunity to parlay the draft pick into another pick to trade for a stronger player. This is how Hughes acquired Alex Newhook from the Colorado Avalanche for two draft picks around the 30 mark.

All in all, Hughes has done an outstanding job getting two first-rounders for Monahan. He got a first rounder to take the large Monahan contract from the Calgary Flames, then got another to send him off to Winnipeg. That is remarkable asset management.

Hughes will continue to try to acquire more first-rounders as the deadline closes in on the eighth of March. He will likely look to deal David Savard and Jake Allen, and if the deal is right, many more could part. Hughes will attempt to acquire as much as a first for either Savard or Allen. It could be a difficult sell, but never write off this GM’s ability to find a needy suitor.

The Canadiens now have four first-round draft choices in the next two seasons. How they handle those four will decide how much longer this rebuild needs to continue. If they can acquire one of the top forwards in this draft like Ivan Demidov, Cole Eiserman, Cayden Lindstrom or Berkly Catton, the top six fills out much better than it is now.

Add one more forward to the mix through the draft, or possibly market all of the young left side strength on defence for more goals, and the future looks bright. All that is required, likely, is this year’s patience, and one more season. After that, the pieces should be in place ready to grow their games.

Only a little more time is required, Habs fans.

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


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