5 Things to Watch: Habs vs Leafs

With Phase 4 officially under way all 24 NHL teams have made their way to the Bubble! The NHL had zero (yes 0) positive cases in the last 4000+ COVID tests, testing over 800 players plus staff. As part of Phase 4 each team will take part in one exhibition game over the next three days and for the Canadiens, that opponent is the Maple Leafs. This may not have the same intensity or meaning as a normal game, but make no mistake neither team wants to go into the Qualifaction Round playing anything short of their best hockey.

Before getting into some of the highlights, here is the final lineup for the 31 man roster that the Habs brought to Toronto

Line combinations are also something to keep an eye on, but here are a few other story lines to follow

1. Power Play

I touched on this a bit in the Canadiens Phase 3 update but the Habs rolled out a couple of revamped Power Play units. On the first unit I am curious to see how Gallagher will be utilized, I feel like the Habs staff know by now that Weber bombs don’t need a screen so hopefully this means Gally will be buzzing around for rebounds. Zone entries will be key for this first unit, there are definitely a few highly skilled puck movers like Drouin and Suzuki but this was an area of major concern for the Habs top unit all season.

I like the potential of the second unit, KK in the slot is an interesting concept, Weal on the half boards is bound to have a few fans up in arms but I will wait to see how he is utilized before making any judgement.

2. Domi & Kotkaniemi

Domi is currently skating on the fourth line between Weise and Weal, however leave it to Claude to give a bullshit answer pretending he is trying to balance his lines. I sincerely hope this is a conditioning situation, putting Domi up against the top lines in practice to get his fitness back to a level that is adequate for the Penguins. I am actually one of the few who like Jordan Weal, I think he has good offensive skill and he is a value contract that provides roster flexibility in a pinch. I have always been a Weise fan but to say this isn’t a fourth line though, stop pissing on us and telling us it’s raining Claude.

The reason why I bring up Kotkaniemi is because it has been rumoured that Domi would be taking his place on the third line, potentially knocking KK out of the lineup. I think this would be a mistake as well provided the KK is actually fully healthy, if that is the case, I think that we really need to test out Domi on the wing. Kotkaniemi put in a lot of work during the pandemic to get back to being healthy and to be ready for this series and I for one, am excited to see how big and fast he looks on the ice.

If Claude is trying to prove a point to Domi that there is no room down the middle, well point made, I don’t think this was ever a surprise to anyone including Max. I do think that a couple of other Finnish wingers may need to keep an eye on Domi as I think he would ideally slip into Joel Armia or Lehkonen’s spot in this lineup, but we need to stop this Domi on the fourth line garbage immediately.

3. Drouin / Suzuki / Armia

Using Domi as a segway into the most interesting line combination to come out of camp, Drouin, Suzuki and Armia have all the parts to be a good line. Drouin is the obvious speed component to this line, he is the most skilled player on this team but lacks the consistentcy to be able to pick up his play on his own game in and game out. Suzuki was by far the biggest surprise of the season, everyone knew he was good but I think he exceeded all of our expectations. Joey Army is a swiss army knife, I love the way he plays, he is a physically imposing player and is one of the best on the Habs at creating space and time for his line mates.

Claude has had some success putting together players of differing styles and skills sets, back in his Bruins days he put together Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak. The Habs line of Tater, Danault and Gallagher is another example of this and if Claude can hit twice, this could be a perfect complimentary line to the Danault line.

4. Jeff Petry’s Partner

No one had more partners this season that Jeff Petry (I didn’t actually fact check this) and despite that, Petry was one of the most consistent players on this roster. Analytically speaking Kulak was the best partner for Petry and it would appear that the two are set to play together in the exhibition game, but I am sure that Claude will test out a few combinations to see what the hot hand is.

5. The Extras

Every team is allowed to dress one additional forward and defenseman for the exhibition game. I will assume that the line up posted above will be the lines for the game and will say that I hope to see Jake Evans and Noah Juulsen suit up as the extras. Evans has been splitting the fifth line center role with Poehling in practice and I expect the team’s extra forward to be one of these two guys. Evans has played some very solid hockey for the Canadiens this season and I hope to see him rewarded for this with an opportunity to put himself on this roster. I believe that Claude will move Domi around in this lineup all night and Evans will replace him on the fourth line.

Things get a bit more complicated on Defense, if we go by the lines at yesterday’s practice in Toronto then Brett Kulak and Xavier Ouellet are in the starting line up. Both missed most of Phase 3 after testing positive (Ouellet’s was possibly due to the presence of antibodies) so it would make sense that they need to get into the line up to see if they are game ready. The problem is that this would come at the cost of Fleury or Juulsen getting one last chance to prove themselves before the start of the series against Pittsburgh. I would have preferred that both of these guys get into the game but let’s just assume the final spot came down to one of Fleury and Juulsen, I got Juulsen here because I want to see what he can do now that he is healthy.

BONUS: Carey’s King Clancy Award Nomination

Every year each team nominates one player for the King Clancy Award, given out annually to the player who best exemplifies leadership and has made noteworthy humanitarian contributions in his community. Carey and wife Angela have been involved with the Breakfast Club of Canada (BCC) since 2014 and have given out meal to over 31,000 children in Indigenous communities across Canada. To date Carey and Angela have helped raise more than $820,000 for the BCC to support their communities and causes.

When the Pandemic hit the Price family donted $50,000 to the BCC to support the organization’s emergency fund to help the already food-insecure youth in the country. They also donated $10,000 to the Montreal Jewish General Hospital Foundation’s Hero Project which provided meals to hospital staff and front-line workers and Carey was also one of the players involved in CCM’s initiative to donate 500,000 surgical masks to front-line health care workers.

This game may not have any meaning to it, but it is the only exhibition game these teams will get heading into the playoffs. There is no love lost between the two or their fan bases which makes this one of the more exciting exhibition games you will ever see. Let’s just all be happy to be watching live hockey again!

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