Jack Todd: Canadiens' sparkling young defence an encouraging sign

Ultimately, to be a consistent playoff team, Montreal will need more goals from its forwards. But for now, the rearguards are chipping in.

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The stat, which I first saw posted by Kevin Paul Dupont of the Boston Globe, seemed about as real as poll numbers designed to show that Candidate X is unbeatable.

The lower mid-pack Canadiens are second in the league in goals from their defencemen? Yeah, right. And my name is Bobby Orr.

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But there they were, all right: The mighty Colorado Avalanche with 25, the Canadiens with 23, Carolina with 20. At the bottom of the list, the Washington Capitals, with three goals from the blue line — even fewer than Alexander Ovechkin has scored this season.

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More remarkable still, the Canadiens have no Cale Makar or Quinn Hughes on the blue line. This is a group effort. Mike Matheson and Justin Barron have five goals each going into Monday night’s game in Winnipeg, Johnathan Kovacevic has four and even the seldom used Gustav Lindström has chipped in three.

When the Canadiens grabbed a 4-0 lead over a good Islanders team at the Bell Centre Saturday night (and very nearly gave it back in the third period) the goals were all scored by the forwards, with Josh Anderson picking up two and a tremendous ovation as he ended a season-long slump. Joel Armia also scored, and struggling sniper Cole Caufield potted one before Christian Dvorak added an empty-netter.

The Canadiens will need more of that. Much more. Not so much this season — with Kirby Dach, Rafael Harvey-Pinard, Alex Newhook and Tanner Pearson out, there are limits to what you can expect from the forwards.

As the Canadiens prepare for the holiday death march where many a season has gone to die, the forwards have contributed 61 goals after 30 games and no one is in double figures. Sean Monahan leads with nine goals, Caufield and Nick Suzuki have eight each.

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Long-term, that isn’t going to cut it. Last season, most of the contenders ended the year with around 280 goals, while outliers Edmonton and Boston topped the 300 mark but failed to make the final. The Canadiens finished last season with 232 goals. This season, they’re on pace for 229. Brian Wilde reckons that to contend, they need to find 50 goals to top out around 285 per season — and you can’t expect to squeeze all those goals out of the defence, however talented.

Wilde has suggested signing William Nylander next July in hopes of landing that 100-point straw that stirs the drink — but no formula is set in stone: the Vegas Knights won the Stanley Cup with Jack Eichel leading the team in the regular season with 27 goals and 66 points — numbers Nick Suzuki could attain.

A season with Dach and Newhook healthy, start to finish, could upend any calculations. The top line of Suzuki, Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky has dominated the analytics of late without quite breaking through on the score sheet — but that will come as soon as Slafkovsky starts shooting more.

Until the Canadiens solve the puzzle and get a bigger contribution from their forwards, however, there will be muttering in the background over Matvei Michkov. Michkov has 11 goals and 15 assists in 30 games in the KHL, a league that was watered down by the exodus of players from North America and Europe after Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. Connor Bedard has virtually the same stats in the NHL.

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I prefer to see general manager Kent Hughes and executive vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton stay the course. They’re building something here. Healthy, this team is a contender for a playoff spot right now. Time and patience will take you a long way in this league — that and a sparkling young defence.

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Oh, shoot: Two things I’ve noticed about the shootout:

Almost everyone in hockey claims to hate it.

And almost no one leaves the rink while the shootout is in progress.

That was true again Wednesday night when the Canadiens battled through a team record 12 rounds before losing in the shootout to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The crowd hung in through shot after shot until it was ended by the unlikely Jansen Harkins.

A three-rounds-and-done shootout doesn’t have room for much drama. But the long version takes on a life of its own. It seemed as though the shooters were basically copying one another, offering a couple of dekes and a little wrister or snapshot from six to eight feet out. After a while, the goalies were swallowing those up like ice-cream pucks.

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I’d love to see players go back to the Alexei Kovalev method. The best penalty goal I’ve ever seen had Kovalev coming in at full speed and scorching a simply unstoppable shot to the top corner. No fakes, no slow-motion dawdling.

Of course the enigmatic M. Kovalev was arguably the most talented player to wear the CH since Guy Lafleur. If the Canadiens could somehow import the 27-year-old version of Kovalev, they’d be set.

Heroes: Josh Anderson, Cole Caufield, Jayden Struble, Juraj Slafkovsky, Steven Dubois, William Dandjinou, the Quartom anthem singers, Rachel Homan &&&& last but not least, Marie-Philip Poulin.

Zeros: Ted Leonsis, Alexander Ovechkin, Erik Gudbranson, Kyle Dubas, Pierre-Luc Dubois, Paul Marner, Ismo Lehkonen, MLS, Don Garber, Draymond Green, Claude Brochu, David Samson &&&& last but not least, Jeffrey Loria.

Now and forever.

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