Sunday January 8th, 2017

The Montreal Canadiens were at the end of their rope. The injuries kept mounting up: forward Brendan Gallagher had surgery Friday to repair a fractured left hand and will be out at least eight weeks. Paul Byron suffered an upper body injury on Wednesday in Dallas. Gallagher and Byron’s injuries come with Alex Galchenyuk and Andrei Markov already out of the lineup. And at the end of a seven-game road trip, the comforts of home were far away.

So they turned to an unfamiliar face and got help in a big way.

In his first NHL game, recent AHL call-up Nikita Scherbak scored his first NHL goal Saturday in Toronto, a nifty little move in close. It was one of five goals from five different scorers that the Canadiens got in a 5-3 Saturday night classic over their rivals, the Toronto Maple Leafs.

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“It’s a dream come true,” Scherbak said of his first game. He noted that he was so nervous throughout the morning skate that he was shaking. “I couldn’t handle the puck,” he said.

He handled it well enough to show composure and beat Frederik Andersen with less than one second left in the 1st period.

“I didn’t really think much,” Scherbak said of the goal. “I just did it.”

Welcome to the NHL, indeed.

If you’re surprised that Scherbak would score in his first NHL game, you might be underestimating the Habs greatest strength, their roster depth. Even with pieces of their core on the sidelines, Montreal still found a way to finish their road trip with a three-game win streak to go 4-2-1. Their lead on the Boston Bruins for first place in the Atlantic Division is now at 10 points.

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“I’m not surprised,” Alexander Radulov said of the win and the strong end to the road trip. Scherbak said fellow Russian Radulov spoke to him before the game in an effort to help him calm his nerves.

“Everybody’s working hard and trying to play the system the way we practice. Hopefully we’re going to continue it,” said Radulov.

The story surrounding the Canadiens’ success entering the season revolved around Carey Price. And yes, the Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender had to be sharp Saturday night, stopping 33 of 36 shots including a 3rd period flurry of 15 shots. But as we near the halfway point of the season, it’s become clear that Price alone won’t dictate the Habs season. If the team can continue to get offensive support from their entire cast, they may be poised to fend off their injury woes throughout the ugly winter months of the season.

“When you have a depleted lineup like we do and young guys stepping in and playing big minutes for us and scoring big goals, it’s great to see,” said Price.

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Montreal and Toronto are two of the highest-scoring team in the NHL, so it was no surprise that the goals came early. Canadiens leading scorer Max Pacioretty took advantage of Andersen, playing his second game in as many nights, and scored his 19th goal of the year just 20 seconds after puck drop.

From there, Artturi Lehkonen, Scherbak, Alexander Radulov and Michael McCarron added goals. McCarron’s goal was the only in the 3rd period and was enough to hold off mounting pressure from the Leafs. It was McCarron’s first goal of the year and just his second in the NHL.

“Every game is a new challenge,” said Radulov. “We have to play every game like it’s our last game.”

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Roster depth isn’t something to be taken lightly. By contrast, the Leafs have been one of the healthiest teams in the NHL this season, with defenceman Martin Marincin the only notable player currently out of the lineup. But they’ve relied heavily on a small group of player to lead the offensive charge, including their two Calder Trophy candidates Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner. Marner was dazzling on Saturday, scoring three primary assists. Leafs fans would surely shudder at the thought of losing one of those players to injury, just as Leafs management would.

Injuries are, of course, inevitable in the NHL this time of the year. Things won’t get any easier for Montreal as they head home to face the Washington Capitals Tuesday night to begin a grueling stretch of eight games in 13 days. To be able to spread out the scoring as the Canadiens did on Saturday night is a sign that they may be able to see through that stretch and overcome the loss of key talent.

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