Truth be told, the Montreal Canadiens would not have defeated the Philadelphia Flyers in this series even if George ‘The Violent Gentleman’ Parros weren’t terrible at his job. Even if Parros had given a non-joke suspension to Flyers defenseman Matt Niskanen, Brendan Gallagher still would have been out of the Canadiens’ lineup and that’s a trade the Flyers would take seven days a week. So you can’t really use that excuse. And as much as the Canadiens made people forget how bad they were in the regular season, the reality is they came into the NHL’s COVID Invitational as its worst team.
But the Canadiens were a very, very tough out, largely because they were everything in the playoffs that they were not in the regular season. The same team that lost four times to the Detroit Red Wings was resilient and difficult to play against, played like demons 5-on-5 and was much better defensively. And of course Carey Price played like the $10.5 million goaltender that he is.
Look, somebody is going to win this thing. But aside from whichever team does that and the Vancouver Canucks – who are remarkably still in the hunt to win it themselves - there is not a team that will take more out of its bubble experience than the Canadiens. Going into the pandemic break, the Canadiens had lost three games in a row, were sellers at the trade deadline and had a third overall pick that was playing in the minors. More than anything, they learned that Nick Suzuki has the potential to be an elite No. 1 center in this league, not a couple years down the road, but now.
For years and years, the Canadiens searched for some depth down the middle. And for years and years it yielded nothing. It’s why they traded Mikhail Sergachev for Jonathan Drouin. It’s why they took Alexander Galchenyuk third overall in 2012 despite the fact that he was limited to two games in his draft year and it’s why they dealt him to Arizona for Max Domi. Drouin and Domi are wingers these days. It’s why GM Marc Bergevin signed Sebastien Aho to the most easily matched offer sheet in history over the summer. And it’s essentially why Suzuki was part of the package coming from the Vegas Golden Knights for Max Pacioretty in 2018. But it just might be time to declare that search over.
“He’s pretty good,” associate coach Kirk Muller said of Suzuki. “But you look at the four centers were have: Suzuki, KK (Jesperi Kotkaniemi), Jake (Evans)…Max plays center and Phil (Danault) does his role, so all of a sudden you look at the team and you’re like, ‘Pretty strong down the middle.’ ”
Even though the Canadiens bowed out in six games in the first round against the Flyers, it was all about the optimism they’ve created over the past six weeks. To be sure, Bergevin and Canadiens fans have to be feeling a lot better about their team than they did when the league shut down. Much of that has to do with Suzuki and Kotkaniemi, who went to the minors in January and came back for training camp intent on making a positive contribution. The two tied for the team lead with four goals in 10 games, while Suzuki led all Canadien scorers with seven points.
But here’s the thing about potential – it has to be realized. It’s one thing for a couple of young players to capitalize on having five months off and playing out of their minds for three weeks. It’s quite another to show up in training camp the next season, then grind through an 82-game regular season playing at a high level. There will be bumps in the road for both of them and for the Canadiens, who still have a ways to go before becoming a legitimate Stanley Cup contender. But one of the most difficult things to teach a young player is how to win and how to battle through adversity. The Canadiens were the 24 best team in the NHL from October to March. For three weeks they proved they could be better than that, much better. And with youngsters such as Suzuki and Kotkaniemi getting a steady diet of Sidney Crosby, Evgeni Malkin, Claude Giroux and Sean Couturier, they will be better for it.
“These were big-time games and we depended on these kids for key roles in key situations,” Muller said, “and they came through. They did what they had to do.”