MONTREAL – It was a 5-3 loss to the Pittsburgh Penguins, but an experience worth savouring for certain members of the Montreal Canadiens. Two in particular, both of them 22 years old, who drew what might be considered the toughest assignments in the NHL.
Jacob De La Rose learned he’d be matched up against Sidney Crosby when he read his saw his name in the starting lineup, and Jonathan Drouin knew he had drawn Evgeni Malkin by default. Colossal challenges that were met well by both players, according to Canadiens coach Claude Julien.
“I don’t have the [Patrice] Bergerons,” said Julien.
Never mind the Boston Bruin who happens to be the best defensive centre in hockey; Julien doesn’t even have Tomas Plekanec, who’d have taken the Crosby assignment—and part of the Malkin one, too— if he were still plying his trade with the Canadiens instead of doing so for the Toronto Maple Leafs.
Phillip Danault (headaches) and Andrew Shaw (concussion symptoms) could’ve helped, too. Knowing that they weren’t available and knowing the Canadiens were dressing 11 players who hadn’t started their year in Montreal against the two-time Stanley Cup champion Penguins was knowing how this was going to play out.
But as Julien pointed out, there was experience – and confidence – to be gained from it. It’s fair to say both De La Rose and Drouin took their share.
“Obviously it’s a great challenge and I like to challenge myself, too,” said De La Rose. “I think I was plus-1 against [Crosby]. Obviously we want to win the game, but I think our line [with Alex Galchenyuk and Artturi Lehkonen] did a pretty good job against him.”
It was just three minutes into the game when De La Rose transitioned the play to offence, starting the play that led to the opening goal.
Galchenyuk took over and found Jeff Petry at the point and Lehkonen slashed to the middle and put a nifty tip on a shot that beat Penguins goaltender Tristan Jarry.
Drouin and his unit got to work on the power play three minutes later and the puck eventually found Paul Byron for his 17th goal of the season.
But what Drouin was doing in the neutral zone—and more importantly in his own zone throughout—was something worth paying attention to. He shadowed Malkin well, kept his feet moving and his head on a swivel, and he started the momentum in the faceoff circle that led him to win 79 per cent of his draws in the game.
Neither De La Rose nor Drouin were on the ice when Bryan Rust gifted Phil Kessel the goal that got the Penguins on the board. And though Drouin was caught on for Patric Hornqvist’s 2-2 marker, it was Petry who fell for Hornqvist’s deke and Byron who slipped his pass into the Canadiens’ net.
Later in the game, with the score 3-3, the Canadiens got caught running around in their own end and a puck came to Hornqvist in the slot to put the game on ice and he delivered. Drouin got caught in no man’s land, but that’s what happens when assignments get missed all over the ice.
“We were all out of whack on that play,” said Drouin’s linemate Brendan Gallagher.
So were the Penguins earlier, when Drouin came storming into the offensive zone and trapped defenceman Kris Letang in the corner to free the puck on Nicolas Deslauriers’ goal that made it 3-3 in the second period.
That was the ebb and flow of this game, with the Canadiens holding their own (to the best of their limited ability) against a much stronger opponent.
“If you want to be in this league, you gotta be able to [stand] up to challenges like that,” said De La Rose.
It’s been a long road for the Swede to show he was capable. He was drafted 34th overall in 2013 and has played just 108 NHL games to the 133 he’s played in the AHL.
It appears as though it’s starting to finally click for him.
“There are different circumstances and he was in and out of the lineup, but when he was out he was upset,” said Gallagher. “When he was coming back he was motivated to play, and now for him getting a chance to play he’s really taking advantage of it. He’s showing what he can do at this level.”
The Canadiens had hoped it wouldn’t take this long for Drouin to do the same at centre, but he had spent his first NHL years as a winger with the Tampa Bay Lightning and expectations might have been unreasonably high for what he could do on a roster with an obvious talent deficiency.
“In an ideal world, he’d be on the wing,” said Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin earlier this year about the player he traded 19-year-old stud defenceman Mikhail Sergachev for.
They were words that stung Drouin, but ones that also motivated him to prove himself.
“I like centre,” he said prior to Thursday’s game. “I’m getting better at it. It’s like if I can’t play it next year, then at that point I haven’t succeeded. But I’m still being given the chance to show what I can do. I can play the position, and I’m starting to like it quite a bit.”
Julien sees the difference.
“If he continues to play the way he is right now, we’re allowed to be wrong sometimes because we’re seeing progress. I think [Bergevin’s] comment was made at the time we weren’t seeing things we’re starting to see now,” said Julien Thursday morning.
“I think Jonathan continues to thrive on those kind of assignments, so I see a guy playing much better lately,” Julien said after matching Drouin up against Malkin, who had come into the game having scored 25 goals since Jan. 1.
There was evidence of it all over the ice on Thursday.
“He didn’t deserve to be minus-2,” said Gallagher.
Hornqvist’s winner and Rust’s empty-net goal made it so. But all in all, it was a very positive night for Drouin and De La Rose.