Canadiens’ Max Domi has chance to prove himself in season’s final weeks

Tyler Toffoli scored in the extra frame to lift the Canucks to a 4-3 win over the Canadiens Tuesday.

MONTREAL — Max Domi flew out of the gate, stormed into the offensive zone, knocked Quinn Hughes over and generated the first scoring chance of a game his Montreal Canadiens eventually lost 4-3 in overtime to the Vancouver Canucks.

It was Domi who set up the game’s first goal for Paul Byron, Domi who set up the goal for Jordan Weal to put the Canadiens up 3-2 in the first minute of the third period, and yes, it was Domi who spent the last minute and thirty-five seconds of his 18:14 of ice-time trying to defend against the goal Tyler Toffoli scored to win the game for the Canucks.

We’re not glossing over that last part. Both Domi and Byron, and defenceman Jeff Petry, had chances to get the puck out of Montreal’s end and get themselves off the ice, but they failed and it cost the Canadiens yet another point in the standings. But the point (no pun intend) is Domi was a factor in every part of this game just like he was in a 3-0 win over the Ottawa Senators on Saturday and, to a slightly lesser degree, in a 4-3 win over the Washington Capitals late last week, and that’s important in the big picture.

Why, you may ask? Because these final 18 games of the season are proving ground for everyone, and Domi has much incentive — outside of his drive to perform for a new contract — to show that he can be every bit the player that scored 28 goals and 72 points in his first season with the team, and less so the player who’s struggled to be consistent this year.

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He started with 10 points in his first 10 games, followed it up with just one goal and two assists over his next 10, and then he went point-less in 10 of his next 13 games before rattling off points in nine straight. And coming into this game, Domi had scored four points in his last four games after he went five games without a point for a second time this season.

Last season, after Domi was traded to the Canadiens from the Arizona Coyotes for Alex Galchenyuk, the Winnipeg native was the model of consistency — never going more than three games without a point.

But it wasn’t just his scoring that was consistent, it was his engagement. And even if it was expected he’d dip in both departments after never producing more than 18 goals and 52 points in his three other seasons that preceded last year’s breakout, it wasn’t expected he’d drop to the level he has at points this year.

Now it’s crucial for Domi to continue on the path he’s currently on, because as Byron put it, “In seasons like this, where they don’t always go as planned, you want to be part of the solution going forward. You want to show that you can be part of the team and build on something.”

There’s also this point Byron made that really resonates: “If we can get our young guys to keep raising their level, keep growing, I think our team has a bright future.”

That was after he labeled Domi a young player.

Byron was right to do so, because Domi is just 24 and still on the upswing of his career. He was also right with what he was saying in general, because this team isn’t going to get to where it wants to go without players like Domi taking their game up a level and keeping it there. And it’s the games played at this time of the year, games against teams who appear destined for the playoffs, which provide the best opportunities for players to prove they can do that.

“The league tightens, penalties are called less, checking’s a little harder, each goal’s so important,” Byron said. “So I think it’s valuable experience for young guys to learn from and I think they’ve been doing a great job this year and I think they’re just going to continue to get better.”

That process for Domi, who has 15 goals and 42 points in 65 games, is vital.

It will be just as vital to the Canadiens, whether Domi stays with them or is used to acquire a piece through trade that addresses other needs they have.

The fact that there’s a spot for Domi at centre right now, with Jesperi Kotkaniemi plying his trade in the American Hockey League and Nate Thompson traded to the Philadelphia Flyers, can only help. With his skating being his best asset, the moves to wing for portions of the season have left him stagnant, which is not uncommon for natural centremen. Even ones who have played wing at various points throughout their careers.

“You’re just not getting as many puck touches (on the wing), and as a centreman you’re coming from behind the play and you can kind of see everything whereas as a winger you’ve got guys behind you,” said Weal, a converted winger who played his entire minor-league career and 503 junior and AHL games combined as a centre before breaking through to the NHL five seasons ago. “You’ve got guys in front of you, so you have to worry about both. As a centre, you’re coming from so low that you can see everything in front of you.”

It’s as a centre that Domi has proven to be at his most effective with Montreal, but his future there with this team is in doubt with Kotkaniemi developing, Nick Suzuki moving above him in the lineup and Phillip Danault being the most versatile Canadien at the position.

Domi can’t control any of that, but he can control how he approaches each game from here to the end of the season. And it’ll be a considerable development for both him and the Canadiens if he brings what he did for most of this game against the Canucks.

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