When the NHL rolled out its return-to-play format approximately 14 years ago, one of the biggest criticisms of the scheme was that an elite team such as, say, the Pittsburgh Penguins, could be upset by an undeserving 12 seed such as, say, the Montreal Canadiens with goalie Carey Price being the deciding factor.
It seemed like a stretch at the time, particularly the way Price had performed in the almost two seasons leading up to the COVID-19 pause, but the alarmists may have been onto something. For at least one night, they looked downright prescient.
Price was indeed an imposing factor in the Montreal Canadiens’ 3-2 overtime win over the Pittsburgh Penguins in the first game of the Eastern Conference play-in series, but what neither the alarmists nor the Penguins could have foreseen was the imprint rookie Nick Suzuki would have on the Canadiens’ fortunes. Just hours after Chicago Blackhawks rookie Dominik Kubalik set an NHL record with a five-point NHL playoff debut in another No. 12 vs. No. 5 upset, Suzuki was a force for the Canadiens all over the ice and was just as pivotal as Price in leading the Canadiens to victory. Calder Trophy finalist Kubalik is 24, while Suzuki will turn 21 during his team’s first-round playoff series if the Canadiens can somehow prevent the Penguins from winning three of the next four games.
No Canadiens forward logged more ice time than Suzuki’s 23:10 on the evening, which included 5:58 of penalty-killing time against some of the most elite forwards on the planet. None of that time was more important than early in the third period with the score tied 2-2 and, with prime penalty killer Danault in the box, coach Claude Julien put Suzuki out to defend a 5-on-3 against. The Penguins failed to score and Suzuki earned the kind of experience that will make him even better. And as much as the four-month break helped veteran players, Julien said the break was just as valuable for a player such as Suzuki, whom the coach thought suffered from fatigue at points in his rookie season.
“With everything – the World Juniors, development camp and going to the Memorial Cup (last season) – he hit a wall at one point,” Julien said. “None of that was his fault. But he’s had four months off and he’s well rested. You’re seeing the intelligence of a smart player. We were limited in our faceoff guys, our centers, and the faceoff was on the right side. We put him out there knowing that not only did he give us the best chance of winning the draw, but also if he didn’t, he’s smart enough to be able to kill that penalty. We looked at their 5-on-3 and we knew exactly what they were trying to do. He’s a pretty smart player and he figures things out…he sorts things out pretty quickly.”
It was also Suzuki who put the Canadiens up 2-0 when he stripped the puck from Penguins defenseman Brian Dumoulin, which created a 2-on-1 that ended when he ripped a perfectly placed shot over the glove of Penguins goalie Matt Murray. When the Canadiens acquired Suzuki, along with Tomas Tatar from the Vegas Golden Knights in the Max Pacioretty deal, they probably didn’t expect this much this quickly from him. Of course, they didn’t expect to be in the playoffs either. Even if the Canadiens lose this series, the experience players such as Suzuki, and fellow goalscorer Jesperi Kotkaniemi, pick up in this series will be immeasurable.
“I was pretty confident going into (the 5-on-3 penalty kill),” Suzuki said. “I had two pretty solid defenders (captain Shea Weber and overtime hero Jeff Petry) with me and we talked a lot about their power play and what we were going to try to do against them. It was nice to get the confidence from the coach going into that situation.”
When you face a team that has Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin down the middle, there’s a good chance you’re going to be facing a super-elite center most of the time. The Canadiens could not shield either Suzuki or Kotkaniemi from that matchup and both passed the test. As impressive as Suzuki was, it bears mentioning that Kotkaniemi was in the American League at the break and hadn’t played in an NHL game since January.
“We’re playing and experienced team that has won Stanley Cups and knows how to win,” Julien said. “We have what we have and the only chance we have is that we play on our toes and not on our heels. Go out there and have some confidence and play hard.”