MONTREAL — Boy, there’s been no shortage of drama in Montreal over the last couple of weeks.
With that in mind, here are some thoughts on the penalty kill, the roles Ryan Poehling and Nick Suzuki play in it, and Nate Thompson‘s emotional interview ahead of the Canadiens’ matchup with the Calgary Flames on Monday.
Penalty kill heating up
It’s easy to ignore something positive like this when the world is crashing down and the losses are piling up, but the Canadiens’ penalty kill has been a force of late.
That was reinforced when the Canadiens shut down three third-period Ottawa opportunities in the 2-1 overtime win over the Senators on Saturday. But the numbers back it up, too.
The Canadiens — who had been inept on the penalty kill through most of the first half of the season — really turned it around at the beginning of their recent eight-game winless streak and have since killed 21 of 23 penalties over their last nine games.
The only team in the NHL on a more successful run over the last three weeks has been the resurgent Tampa Bay Lightning. And, looking a bit deeper, the Canadiens have successfully killed off 84.2 per cent of their penalties since Dec. 1, which is fifth-best in the league.
Following the win in Ottawa, Shea Weber pointed to a couple of key factors in why the Canadiens have found some success in this department.
“Obviously Carey (Price) has been outstanding,” Weber said. “And we’re pressuring a little bit more at the pressure-point at times, which helps.”
It’s hard to point to one factor being more important than the other.
They (whoever they are) always say your best penalty killer has to be your goaltender, and it’s impossible to argue with that. But the second thing Weber said has been just as essential in this dramatic turnaround.
It’s not so much that the Canadiens weren’t aggressive on the penalty kill beforehand, but their choices on when and where to be aggressive got them into a lot of trouble. Now they are doing a better job pursuing the puck up-ice and forcing the opposition into quick decisions.
The Canadiens are also doing a better job of lining up in the neutral zone and denying clean zone entries. And when things do get set up in their own zone, they’re running around less, keeping their structure and doing a better job of denying the seam-passes that were killing them earlier on.
Poehling and Suzuki find role on PK
Another factor in Montreal’s penalty-killing success of late? The addition of 21-year-old Ryan Poehling to the mix.
He’s been on the ice for just one goal against on the penalty kill this season. One reason for that is the speed he brings on the forecheck.
But the bigger reason is that his hockey sense is his best asset and it serves him particularly well in this department.
It’s been particularly interesting to see Claude Julien opt for Poehling and fellow rookie Nick Suzuki as a penalty-killing duo.
Out of Canadiens to have played at least 10 minutes on the penalty kill this season, Suzuki leads in shot-attempt differential — he’s at 31.43 per cent Corsi For — which is nine percentage points higher than the next guy on the list (who just happens to be Poehling).
But enough about the penalty kill, let’s talk about Suzuki’s shot.
It might have been the most underwhelming part of his offensive game considering everything else he was bringing to the table at the beginning of the year, but it seems to have improved as the season’s gone along.
Just take a look at the goal he whipped in on Saturday.
Placement is key on this shot, but the release is excellent and the shot has some more bite to it.
Suzuki has been using the same pattern and flex for several years, which is notable. In an age where most forwards his size are opting for more flexible sticks, Suzuki was using an 87 flex and cutting his stick down to render it closer to 92.
Thompson opens up about addiction
The interview Hockey Night in Canada’s Christine Simpson did with Nate and Sydney Thompson really struck a chord.
There are a few reasons for that, not the least of which is that in many interactions with Nate Thompson he has always come across as such a good and likeable person that it’s painful to think of him self-sabotaging — which is something he said he felt he had to do just to get by before seeking out help for his issues.
Simpson — who has always been an excellent interviewer — tackled this difficult subject in a professional and impressive way.
Full credit goes to Thompson and his wife for their openness and their honesty, but Simpson really helped get the full story out there — especially given that the Thompsons were most willing to do this in the hope it will help some others struggling with addiction.
Thompson could help playoff contender
Unless the Canadiens rattle off five wins in a row going to the bye-week and come out of All-Star break on a miraculous tear, Thompson likely figures to be a player who will change addresses between now and the trade deadline.
If there’s a team out there that wants a better sense for what kind of presence he has in the room — and it’s a good one given all the stories about him helping the young players on the Canadiens and his nickname being ‘Uncle Nate’ — here’s something that really stood earlier this season.
It was 20-year-old Cayden Primeau’s NHL debut (against the highest-scoring team in the Western Conference, the Colorado Avalanche) and he had two chances to cover the puck in his crease before defenceman Ryan Graves banged home a rebound.
It was fairly obvious the goal was on Primeau, but when the 35-year-old Thompson was asked about the play — given that Graves was his man — the first words out of his mouth were, “Blame me.”