Ah, this league.
Only in the NHL can a rested Montreal Canadiens team be a complete no-show against a Chicago Blackhawks team playing the second half of a back-to-back Wednesday, but somehow find a way to totally outhustle a Philadelphia Flyers team owning the league’s best home record on Thursday.
You know, the same Flyers team that had beaten the reigning Stanley Cup Champion St. Louis Blues 24 hours earlier. They dropped this one 4-1 to a Canadiens team that played arguably its worst game of the season at the Bell Centre on Wednesday.
It makes you wonder what other improbable things can happen from here to the end of the season.
Not that we’d suggest you take your hard-earned money and bet it on the Canadiens finding a way into the playoffs from down seven points in the wild-card race, eight points in the Atlantic Division race and owing a game in-hand to both the Columbus Blue Jackets and the Toronto Maple Leafs — and at least one to every other team sitting between them and a playoff position.
Regardless, the battle continues for the Canadiens. They’re a never-say-die group and, with some injured players on the mend, they seem intent on making this a fight to the finish. Even if management has other ideas between now and the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
Difficult decisions lie ahead for Marc Bergevin.
Starting with what to do with Tomas Tatar, who scored points 99, 100 and 101 in a Canadiens uniform during what was just his 129th game with the franchise on Thursday.
With Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki growing into capable centremen, and with Jonathan Drouin, Max Domi and Paul Byron as scoring options down the left side of the lineup, Bergevin has no choice but to explore the market on Tatar between now and the deadline.
The 29-year-old, who now has 43 points in 49 games this season, has been incredibly consistent since coming over as the “throw-in” to the deal that sent Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for Suzuki and a 2019 second-round pick. Remember, the Golden Knights retained $500,000 of his salary-cap hit.
Add in the fact that Tatar will earn an actual salary of $4.2 million next season (his cap hit is $5.3 million minus what Vegas retained) and his value on the market should be extremely high.
If it isn’t, there’s no reason for Bergevin to move him. Tatar loves it in Montreal and it shows in his play. And if the GM wants this team to compete for the playoffs next season, Tatar figures to be a factor in helping them get there.
It’s the same logic you can apply to Jeff Petry, who’s at a $5.5 million cap hit for one more season after this one, but has an actual salary of $4 million.
The big, right-handed shooting defenceman, who’s on pace to eclipse the 40-point mark for a third consecutive season, should be in high demand — even though he’s got a partial no-trade clause that allows him to avoid going to 15 teams.
It would take a massive offer for Bergevin to move him. Especially since Cale Fleury — though on his way to becoming a top-four defenceman — is still at least a couple of years away from becoming a player who can step into the kind of role Petry currently fills. Josh Brook, a recent healthy scratch with the Canadiens’ AHL affiliate in Laval, has his work cut out for him, too.
There are other players who Bergevin can dangle between now and the deadline in order to redeem some depth futures. Players such as Jordan Weal, Dale Weise, Nate Thompson, Nick Cousins and Matthew Peca.
However, with few sellers emerging in what appears to be a tight playoff race in both conferences, Bergevin has some good leverage in negotiations for either of the big guns listed above. These are tough decisions.
But they’re solved with a simple equation: If a player is worth more to your team than he is on the market, you keep him.
• Which brings us to Ilya Kovalchuk.
What do the Canadiens do with him if they fall any further back in the race over the next couple of weeks?
Kovalchuk had two goals in Thursday’s game, and that was in spite of the fact that he played his lowest total ice time (15:38) since signing his two-way, $700,000 deal with the Canadiens to resurrect his career.
That he hasn’t looked remotely out of place, topping 19 minutes in five of his seven games, after not playing from Nov. 9 to Jan. 5 has been nothing short of impressive.
Also impressive? He’s now got three goals — two of them game-winners — and four assists as a Canadien.
So what’s he worth on the market? And is it more than what he’s worth to the Canadiens? Because right now, he looks like a player they should consider re-signing at the end of the season if they can’t redeem a nice piece for him on the trade market.
Before anyone freaks out, the operative words there were “right now.” That’s why it would be the best course of action to auction the 36-year-old off before the deadline.
• Kotkaniemi said last season, when he was the youngest player in the NHL, that he had never been a part of a game that featured a fight.
On Thursday, Kotkaniemi took exception to Robert Hagg’s hit on Ryan Poehling, dropped the gloves and absolutely pummeled the Flyers defenceman to earn a two-minute penalty for instigating a fight, a five-minute penalty for fighting and a 10-minute misconduct.
You can bet he earned a lot more than that with his teammates.
• Artturi Lehkonen scored his 11th goal of the season and upped his shooting percentage to 10.8 per cent this season.
The Finn is scoring on just 0.6 per cent less of his shots than he did in his rookie season, when he scored 18 goals. Perhaps the two seasons in between, when he scored on just 6.8 per cent of his shots, were the outliers.
• Last word goes to Carey Price, who made 40 saves look mostly routine in this one.
The 32-year-old goaltender was sensational, and he has now stopped 112 of the last 114 shots he’s faced and won each of his last three starts.
The Canadiens will play the Vegas Golden Knights at the Bell Centre on Saturday before breaking from Jan. 19 to 26 for the bye week.