Canadiens look rested, sharp as team kicks off taxing stretch drive
MONTREAL — It was just what the doctor ordered.
Not that a case of COVID, and the potential for several more to develop, was a blessing for the Montreal Canadiens. That would be a callous outlook — especially with Joel Armia still dealing with it as he watched his team’s first game at the Bell Centre since the NHL and local authorities decided to put a halt to all activities last Monday, after he tested positive for the variant of the virus and Jesperi Kotkaniemi was identified as a close contact.
But the unexpected rest was a prescription nearly every player in bleu, blanc et rouge wouldn’t have turned away. It wasn’t going to be a remedy for Michael Frolik, who was less than an hour away from his season debut when the NHL announced it was postponing Canadiens games for at least seven days, but it was going to be as beneficial for the team’s youngest players as it would be for its oldest.
That much was apparent then and it was obvious 18 seconds after the puck dropped between the Canadiens and Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday, with 20-year-old Kotkaniemi opening the scoring on Montreal’s first shot. It was confirmed over the course of the next 59:42, with everyone on the home team gunning at full throttle — including 35-year-old captain Shea Weber, who played 14 of his 17 non-power-play minutes against the NHL’s best duo (Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl) and helped hold it to zero.
He was rejuvenated in this 4-0 win, after his top-pairing role sapped a lot out of him in the 31 games the Canadiens played from Jan. 13 to Mar. 20.
“He’s such a pro. He’s taking care of himself and he used those days the right way,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme about Weber, who finished the night with an assist, a plus-3 rating, three shots on net and two that struck iron over his 25 shifts. “We need him down the stretch, and he had a solid game.”
They all did.
Carey Price stopped all 16 shots he faced for his first shutout of the season and the 49th of his career. Paul Byron, who had five assists in 30 games, set up two goals in the first 3:23 of this one.
Ducharme said Artturi Lehkonen played his best game of the 14 he’s coached since taking over from Claude Julien on Feb. 25. And Tomas Tatar, who capped the scoring with just over two minutes to go in the second period, played a big hand in a very successful night for his line with Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher.
One guy who really had it was Nick Suzuki, the 21-year-old centre who was a piñata for the opposition over the 16 games the Canadiens played in 28 days before they were shut down. He may not have hit the board Tuesday, but he hit the ice with the type of energy we haven’t seen from him since his 12th game of the season.
Six days without practice, without checks given and received, without shots fired and blocked, without being slashed and cross-checked, without being consumed by the game for every waking moment and even without having to answer questions from pesky reporters like this one, did a lot for this team.
“I thought it was good for everybody, mentally,” said Byron. “It wasn’t something we were looking for or that guys looked exhausted or anything like that. It was an unfortunate instance what happened and we just tried to make the best of it and give ourselves an opportunity to keep working on our systems, keep working on the finer details of the game, staying sharp for the week with team videos and stuff like that.
“But to be able to step away from the game a little bit, you can rejuvenate your senses, rejuvenate the mind. We had some nice weather in Montreal. … I think it was just good for everybody — young guys, old guys — and the guys played really well tonight.”
McDavid certainly thought the break had something to do with it.
“They had the jump and the energy,” he said. “They played a good game. Not us.”
No, the Oilers, playing their third game in four nights after their layoff from Monday to Saturday, were chasing it all game.
It could’ve been different had the Canadiens started rusty. But Montreal’s execution was nearly perfect from top-to-bottom.
It was probably a good omen that Frolik looked like a guy who hadn’t missed a beat and nothing like a guy who hadn’t played a game since Mar. 7, 2020.
“He proved he can be helping for our team and we got him for a reason,” said Tatar of Frolik, who signed a one-year contract worth the league minimum to ride the taxi squad until an injury (like the one Tyler Toffoli’s dealing with) or an illness (like Armia has) would require him to step in.
“I think he did a tremendous job,” Tatar concluded.
The Slovakian looked and sounded energized, as did Weber, Byron and even Ducharme. An unexpected rest followed by a lopsided win helped preserve that, which is pivotal as the Canadiens move forward with 24 games to play over the next 42 nights.
“Breaks are hard to come by in a season like this,” said Weber. “Ask us in a month how we’re going to feel playing every second night and back to back. It’s going to be a lot different story.”
Playing four games last week instead of watching some from the couch wouldn’t have made it any easier.