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Sharks at Canadiens Preview: Saviez-vous que Vlasic est de Montréal?

This will be an elite uniform match-up.

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Nick Suzuki #14 of the Montreal Canadiens passes the puck against the San Jose Sharks in the NHL game at the Bell Centre on October 19, 2021 in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Photo by Francois Lacasse/NHLI via Getty Images

The San Jose Sharks (7-13-4, seventh Pacific) kick off a road trip with a visit to the Montreal Canadiens (11-9-1, sixth Atlantic). The Canadiens will be well rested after coming off a 3-2 shoot out victory over the Chicago Blackhawks, where Kirby Dach made an impression on his old team.

The Sharks are coming off another loss — despite the team finally seeing secondary scoring in the form of two Luke Kunin goals, they were unable to overcome critical mistakes in overtime to finish off the comeback against the Vancouver Canucks. While San Jose still earned a loser point out of it, they have won just one of the last six games. It’s becoming very late, very fast to turn it around this season.

After a miracle Stanley Cup Final run in the bubble 2020-21 season, the Habs were the worst team in the NHL last season. Losing legendary goaltender Carey Price for a majority of the season and a rotating cast of netminders behind Jake Allen was a huge reason, but the mismanagement from the front office on down led to the firing of general manager Marc Bergevin in season. Kent Hughes was named the new general manager and one of his first acts was the dismissal of head coach Dominique Ducharme — presumably after watching one game where Cole Caufield was placed on the fourth line — and Martin St. Louis was named the interim head coach. The season ended with a 14-19-4 record under him, and thus St. Louis had the interim tag removed, signing a three-year deal to be the Habs’ head coach.

Hughes was very busy at the trade deadline, moving basically anything that wasn’t bolted down to Bell Centre. Tyler Toffoli was sent to the Calgary Flames for a 2022 first-round pick, a 2023 fifth-round pick, prospect Emil Heineman and forward Tyler Pitlick. They also sent defender Ben Chariot to the Florida Panthers for a 2023 first-rounder, as well as a fourth-round pick in 2022 and forward prospect Ty Smilanic.

Hughes continued his huge tradeline by trading defender Brett Kulak to the Edmonton Oilers for a second-round pick in 2022, a seventh-round pick in 2024, and defender William Lagesson. Finally, Artturi Lehkonen was sent to the Colorado Avalanche. In return, the Canadiens received defenseman prospect Justin Barron and a 2024 second-round pick.

The Canadiens shocked many by using the first pick of the draft on Juraj Slafkovsky out of Slovakia, after months of speculation about presumed first-overall pick Shane Wright. These weren't the only fireworks the Habs provided this off-season, trading defender Alexander Romanov to the New York Islanders for the 13th-overall pick, then flipped the pick for Kirby Dach from the Blackhawks. They also doubled-down on the Slovaks, selecting Filip Mesar with the 26th pick.

The off-season stayed busy as the Habs looked to add around the new core of Caufield, Dach and freshly-minted captain Nick Suzuki. Hughes sent off Shea Weber’s LTIR contract to the Vegas Golden Knights for Evgenii Dadonov. Hughes was also able to shed some cap space by sending Jeff Petry and Ryan Poehling to the Pittsburgh Penguins for Mike Matheson and a 2023 fourth-round pick. The rest of the off-season was used to re-sign their own players, including goaltender Jake Allen, who was entering the final year of his deal.

Heading into tomorrow’s game, the Canadiens are relatively healthy. Carey Price and Paul Byron are on LTIR and Jonathan Drouin was placed on IR on Nov. 15 with an upper-body injury. Sharks legend Mike Hoffman is listed as day-to-day and has missed the last three games.

Injuries are starting to mount up for San Jose, as James Reimer missed Sunday’s game against the Canucks and was placed on IR on Monday morning. Mario Ferraro was also placed on IR on Nov. 26. Nico Sturm has been practicing, but has yet to return to the line-up.

The Kids vs. the Vets

The Canadiens have done a great job in identifying the pieces of their next core in Suzuki, Dach and Caufield and in turn, those three have responded by being the team’s top scorers this season. While the Canadiens are not going to be contending for a playoff spot, they are allowing the young players an opportunity to grow into their future roles.

Suzuki is ranked 19th in the NHL among forwards in ice time and leads the team with 24 points. After a slow start to Caufield’s rookie season with one goal in his first 30 games, he finished with 21 in his final 36 games. Caufield is off to a great start this season with 12 goals in his first 21 games and is looking like the player who helped to catapult the Canadiens to a Stanley Cup Final run.

The Sharks are taking a much different approach to their next core by letting them marinate in the AHL. While Suzuki, Dach, and Caufield are a few years older than William Eklund, Thomas Bordeleau and Tristen Robins, it’s not as if the Sharks' bottom-six have been lighting up opponents. Players not named Meier, Couture, Karlsson or Hertl have accounted for 31 of the Sharks' 71 goals this season. 18 skaters have scored 31 goals. While the offense has been better recently, it’s very top-heavy. At some point, David Quinn and Mike Grier are going to have to take the training wheels off and see if the kids can play.

Kaapo Kahkonen’s net

With James Reimer officially going on IR, Kahkonen has a chance to try and turn his season around. The world’s okayest goalie, Aaron Dell, was called up on an emergency basis, so Kahkonen is going to need to sink or swim over the road trip against some quality offenses. While his numbers weren’t great against the Canucks, the defense didn’t exactly help him out.

At the same time, Kahkonen has not helped himself out much this season. He is currently second to last in the league in goals saved above expected, but should have a chance to figure some things out against the Canadiens. Although the Canadiens rank 14th in 5-on-5 goals scored, they are near the bottom of the league in high danger chance percentage (44.21) and Corsi for percentage (48.45). Kahkonen has struggled with high-danger saves, so facing a team that struggles to generate them could help to boost Kahkonen’s confidence.

Defense optional?

Other than Erik Karlsson, there isn’t much to get excited about between these two defensive corps. The Sharks are trotting out the usual suspects of Marc-Eduoard Vlasic (who has been surprisingly solid this season), Jaycob Megna, Matt Benning, Radim Simek and Nick Cicek (who has performed well in his six NHL games so far).

The Canadiens do have some fun pieces on the blue line, including Kaiden Guhle and Arber Xhekaj, but are stuck with players who are on their way out of the league soon or still working through their rookie bumps.

Sharks vs Canadiens Rankings via JFresh Hockey
Sharks vs Canadiens Rankings via JFresh Hockey

The major difference between the breakdown in defense is the goaltending. Jake Allen and Sam Montembeault have been able to cover for the mistakes of the Habs, while Kahkonen and as of recently, James Reimer, have not. Expect a lot of opportunities for both offenses and whichever netminder can come up with a big save is probably going to win the game.

Bold Prediction: Radim Simek and Arber Xhekaj get into an epic fight midway through the second period. This is a closely contested game, but the Sharks give up the lead with less than three minutes to play. 4-3, Canadiens.