BROSSARD, Que.— It was just one of several incredible sequences of play Jonathan Drouin’s offered since becoming a Montreal Canadien this past summer.
With a little less than six minutes remaining in the first period of his team’s 3-2 win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday, Drouin corralled the puck along the left boards of his own zone. Knights forward Cody Eakin came at him at full speed, and Drouin calmly waited for Eakin’s stick-check, deked Eakin inside out, passed to Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry and sped out of the Canadiens zone.
Petry launched a wrist-shot pass waist-high at Drouin, as the centre was streaking through the neutral zone, and Drouin knocked it down, mostly with the shaft of his stick, and fired it just over the net.
"He’s [expletive] amazing," said teammate Torrey Mitchell after Wednesday’s practice.
"Who is?" asked Jacob De La Rose.
"Drouin," replied Mitchell. "Did you see that play? Everyone’s panicking in our zone, and he’s just so patient. He turns the guy into a pylon and takes off and then makes that insane play. Can you imagine if he had scored on that?"
"He’s really good," said De La Rose.
It just so happens that part of that pass from Petry appeared to catch Drouin’s left thumb. He went to the bench and put some ice on it.
Drouin was able to play through to the end of the first and took several shifts in the second but did not return for the third period. And now he’s got a 50-50 chance of playing against the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, according to Canadiens coach Claude Julien.
For a team that hardly boasts the flashiest centre line in the NHL, losing Drouin could prove devastating.
"He’s amazing through the neutral zone, he’s much better defensively than most people assumed before he played a game at centre for us, and he might be the best power-play player in the world," said Mitchell.
Good luck replacing all of that.
It was Alex Galchenyuk who took Drouin’s spot up the middle for the third period of Tuesday’s game, playing 5:01 in the frame, registering zero shots, nearly setting up Artturi Lehkonen for a goal and getting caught on the ice for Knights forward Erik Haula’s goal against.
Galchenyuk’s got the talent portion to at the very least fill in for Drouin in the short term. But Julien’s decision not to exercise that option suggests talent isn’t enough.
"I didn’t see that much of [Galchenyuk at centre in the third period], but I still see him as a winger," said Julien after Tuesday’s game.
That’s why Mitchell was in between Galchenyuk and Lehkonen for Wednesday’s practice. He won’t cost the Canadiens on the defensive side of the puck, and it’s fair to say that’s more important to the coach than whatever offensive sacrifice might be made by putting him there.
Mitchell has a row of donuts through his stat line after nine games this season. Ditto for De La Rose, who’s yet to produce anything through seven games and is currently centring the team’s fourth line with Charles Hudon and recent call-up Byron Froese.
That’s what’s expected to be the fourth line if Andrew Shaw, who missed Wednesday’s practice, is good to go for Thursday’s game. If Shaw can’t play, there’s a possibility defenceman Brandon Davidson will take some shifts up front and Hudon will move into Shaw’s spot.
It would be a considerable loss if Shaw was out for any extended period of time. Since the sparkplug winger was placed on a line with Phillip Danault and Max Pacioretty two Saturdays ago, he’s scored three goals and three assists in six games and played his best hockey with the Canadiens since coming over in a trade in June of 2016.
But Shaw’s loss would pale in comparison to Drouin’s.
The Ste-Agathe, Que., native received the Molson Cup for the month of October before Tuesday’s game. It’s an award handed out each month to the player who collects the most three-star selections at the Bell Centre. He had collected three goals and eight assists through his first 15 games and appeared as though he was really coming into his own as the team’s No. 1 centre.
"He’s a smart player," said Tomas Plekanec. "He’s smart, he’s really strong with the puck, and he’s extremely talented offensively. I think he’s using all of that and has been really successful for us so far."
Plekanec and the Canadiens are hoping Drouin can stay on that track on Thursday.