Canadiens’ Nick Suzuki facing one last test in quest for roster spot

Nick Suzuki’s phone blew up after his insane shootout goal, which wowed his Canadiens teammates, especially fellow youngster Jesperi Kotkaniemi.

BROSSARD, Que. — It’s one more test, but it might just be the most important one Nick Suzuki will face in his quest to earn a job with the Montreal Canadiens to start the season.

On Saturday, for Montreal’s pre-season game against the Ottawa Senators, Suzuki will move from centre to wing and he’ll play on a line with top-line centre Phillip Danault and one of the team’s top wingers, Tomas Tatar. If it goes well, we can start talking about how he’s got a job to lose rather than one to gain, because so far he’s answered every question.

This is Suzuki’s third pro camp since being drafted 13th overall by the Vegas Golden Knights, and he has never looked better at this level than he has over the last week.

“The last two years, I didn’t feel strong enough or fast enough to get myself in the clear,” he said on Tuesday.

On Thursday, in a 5-4 win over the Florida Panthers at the Bell Centre, Suzuki looked strong enough and fast enough to break away from anyone. He notched two assists and was arguably the best player on the ice for either team.

And then there was what Suzuki did in the shootout, pulling a page out of the great Pavel Datsyuk’s book to score a goal that brought the fans out of their seats — and a few of his teammates out of theirs too.

“That was nasty. I like that,” said Canadiens centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who didn’t dress against Florida. “I just sent him a text: ‘You dirty bastard.’”

Tatar said the goal reminded him of this one the late Pavol Demitra scored for Slovakia in the 2010 Olympics.

What the goal told us is that this 20-year-old is anything but overwhelmed by the pressure he’s under to prove he can graduate to this level. He’s not remotely overwhelmed by the expectations the fans are heaping on him, nor is he at all overwhelmed by the daily attention he’s receiving from the media.

“He’s confident,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien on Friday. “He’s confident, he’s skilled, I’m sure it’s not the first time he’s gotten away with things like that (shootout goal). There’s types of confidence that you have and some of it is arrogance and some of it is good confidence. And I think he’s got good confidence. He doesn’t have the arrogance, but he’s got good confidence — he believes in himself and what he does and that’s why he’s doing those kind of things.”

What Suzuki is doing is making it nearly impossible for Julien and his coaching staff to send him away when camp wraps up at the beginning of October. Whether it’s his hockey sense, which is testing through the roof, or it’s the speed and playmaking he’s displaying on virtually every shift, his case to stay with the Canadiens is growing by the minute.

How does Julien feel about his defensive game, you ask?

“He’s been good,” Julien said. “He’s done the work. I think he’s very aware in his own end. No complaints there.”

Suzuki’s versatility — his ability to play effectively at five-on-five and on both special teams units — is another box checked.

Now the goal is for him to show he can be just as effective on the right side and with two of the team’s best players.

“It doesn’t change too much,” Suzuki said after Friday’s practice. “I’m just looking at different angles. Getting pucks off the wall, I think I can find guys off the rush in the D-zone and offensive zone. I think it doesn’t change too much.

“It’s a great opportunity for me to play alongside those guys and hopefully I play well.”

Julien hopes so, too.

“If a guy deserves a spot, you have to give him his spot,” the coach said. “We like what we’ve seen from him at centre. If we like what we see at wing, it’s going to give me more options.”

Ryan Poehling concussed

If Suzuki’s standing with the team has become a little clearer over the past 24 hours, Ryan Poehling’s situation has become a little murkier with the news that he woke up on Thursday feeling the after-effects of a crushing hit thrown by Florida’s Dryden Hunt in Wednesday’s Hockeyville game in Bathurst, N.B.

Prior to Friday’s practice, it was announced that Poehling was diagnosed with a concussion. Afterwards, Canadiens coach Julien was asked if Poehling should have been pulled from the game.

“There were no indications he was concussed,” said Julien. “I’m not going to get into things like that, but there were no indications. He was feeling good. All you need to do is look at the play he made on the winning goal, he didn’t look like a guy who had just suffered a concussion. He had no symptoms. It’s the next day (there were indications). That’s totally normal when it comes to concussions — that symptoms aren’t always there immediately and they sometimes present themselves later. So if you start removing all the players from the lineup because we think they might have a concussion but aren’t showing any indications of having one, you’d be left with half a bench.”

If that last sentence gives off the impression that Julien and the Canadiens aren’t sensitive to the concussion issue, consider how they’ve handled Noah Juulsen’s situation over the last week.

Juulsen suffered a facial injury that cut his 2018-19 season down to just 24 games (21 with the Canadiens and three with the Laval Rocket). He had not suffered a concussion, nor was he suffering from any symptoms related to concussion. But when he showed up last Tuesday (after months of rehabilitation and a summer’s worth of training and skating symptom-free) complaining of headaches, the Canadiens shut him down and encouraged him to seek out a second medical opinion on his condition.

Last year, when Andrew Shaw, who was in the midst of a career season, left a game with neck pain, the Canadiens kept him out of action and treated him as though he was concussed — even though he hadn’t been diagnosed with a concussion. Given Shaw’s extensive concussion history, the Canadiens wanted to take the necessary precautions, even if it meant losing him for 11 games while they were in a dog fight for a playoff spot.

In his most recent tenure as Canadiens coach, Julien has made several comments about not wanting to expose any of his players to further risk should they exhibit concussion symptoms. And when he said Poehling wasn’t exhibiting any, we take him at his word.

Several other players we spoke to on Friday said they had no clue anything was wrong with him.

“I was with him after the game, and his face had a scratch or two,” said one player, before adding, “but he said he was feeling fine. Then the next day, he said he might have a concussion. I was shocked.”

On the play in question, it was clear Poehling was shaken. As he crawled over to his stick before getting up and dusting himself off, I thought he might be hurt. And yes, I looked carefully to see if his head took a blow and it was abundantly clear that it had ricocheted off the glass.

But Poehling didn’t appear to be stumbling his way back to the bench, where he was presumably asked if he was okay. And he appeared no worse for wear over the next two or three shifts, which I watched carefully in order to see if he’d shy away from the dirty areas.

He answered that question within 30 seconds by barreling into the corner to retrieve a loose puck without any hesitation.

Julien was right — there were no signs that something was wrong with Poehling in the third period, especially when he deked the pants off of Aaron Ekblad to set up the game-winning goal for Alex Belzile.

I can understand that Julien’s comments, which certainly came off as defensive, are likely to draw some heat. The question, which he could have — and likely did — interpret as an accusation, put him on the defensive, and his answer wasn’t carefully thought out. It was a reactionary comment. I don’t believe he was trying to make light of the concussion issue.

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