MONTREAL — The goals for the home team came from three players who have combined for 1,161 National Hockey League games.
But the Montreal Canadiens weren’t walking away from their game against the Ottawa Senators celebrating a 3-2 overtime win without key contributions from some of their youngest players.
This is the NHL now, where you have no choice but to live with mistakes borne of inexperience, because the upside of trusting your young players to get the job done will serve you well both in the short term and in the long term.
On Wednesday, with his Canadiens seeking their third consecutive win and fourth in their last five games, head coach Claude Julien put his faith in 20-year-old goaltender Cayden Primeau. He pushed 20-year-old Cale Fleury and 22-year-old Otto Leskinen on the ice together almost regularly as a defence pairing because this was the second half of a back-to-back for Montreal and he was in control of the matchups. He also put 20-year-old Nick Suzuki out there in all situations and gave him 21 shifts in the game.
And had it not been for 12 penalties taken between Ottawa and Montreal, 20-year-old Canadiens forward Ryan Poehling surely would have played more than 9:48 in this one.
Plain and simple, you need to trust the kids in order to win in this league.
“The only way we’re going to get better is by giving them the chance to play,” said Julien, “and if the results are there at the same time, then great.”
Primeau was a wall for the Canadiens in just his second-ever NHL start.
He started with saves on eight of the first nine shots of the game and made 12 total in the first period to keep Ottawa off the board.
In the second period, Primeau stopped 14 more shots. There was a 3-on-1 blocker save on Brady Tkachuk that got the fans out of their seats and had them chanting his name. There was the shorthanded break from Jean-Gabriel Pageau that Primeau suffocated without giving up a rebound. And there was one more big stop on a 2-on-1 chance for Tkachuk that saw him sprawl across his crease on his belly and stick his pad out.
Primeau finished the game with a strong third period behind a Canadiens team Julien said was on its heels.
The final count was 35 saves for the kid.
“He’s huge,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber, who picked up his 26th point of the season on Nick Cousins’ first-period power-play goal. “Obviously he covers a lot of net, and the composure he has for such a young age is great. At this age, for him to be so steady in there, it’s only going to get better from here.”
About Primeau’s composure, here’s what the king of it, Canadiens starter Carey Price, said: “He’s definitely got a quiet demeanour about himself, and he works hard. He definitely reminds me a bit of my younger self.”
Can you imagine what that means to the 199th pick in the 2017 NHL Draft?
Talk about a confidence-booster.
Here’s one for Poehling, who struggled in his first stint with Montreal earlier this season but was recalled from the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Wednesday to replace injured forward Matthew Peca.
“I liked his game tonight,” said Julien. “He was really physical, he was strong. We needed a presence like that — and certainly against the Senators — and I liked his game tonight. He was implicated, he was aggressive. He played a man’s game tonight; in the corners, in front of the net, he did good work.”
Anyone watching would have agreed with that assessment.
Poehling was in perpetual motion, he was hard on the forecheck and on the backcheck, and he created glorious scoring chances for Weber and Brendan Gallagher and was oh-so-close to scoring himself before Senators goaltender Anders Nilsson robbed him on the doorstep.
This was an important step in Poehling’s development after a concussion suffered in training camp slowed him down and after his first four games of the season (from Nov. 5-12) were underwhelming.
And, you know what, when Leskinen got the puck on his forehand and had a chance to clear the zone before the 20-year-old Tkachuk pickpocketed him and set up the 2-2 goal for Connor Brown at 13:05 of the third period, it was good for his development too.
“If that’s a guy with experience, it’s off his stick and up the boards or off the glass right away,” said Ben Chiarot, who iced the game for Montreal with his first-ever overtime winner. “But if you don’t give these players experience now, they won’t figure that out. He’ll adjust now that he’s had that experience.”
Julien’s intentions were good in putting Leskinen on the ice at that stage of the game. In the second period, the Finn had opted for a shot instead of making the safer play of putting the puck in the corner and Nick Paul blocked it to send Tkachuk the other way on the 3-on-1 that ended with that big save that had the crowd chanting Primeau’s name, but that didn’t deter the coach from trusting him in an important situation.
“You can always second guess yourself afterwards and say, ‘Geez. Should I have had him on the ice?’” said Julien. “You’re always trying to put them in positions to succeed. Doesn’t mean it always happens.”
But every mistake brings a lesson, and every lesson learned furthers the development of these young players.
And there’s nothing more important than that process in this league, at this particular point in time.
“It’s the way it goes nowadays,” said Weber. “Everybody’s built from within for the most part … So far the kids have really helped us out this year.”
On this night it was Primeau and Poehling. On others it’s been Suzuki, or Fleury, or 19-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi. And on many nights, 21-year-old Victor Mete, currently sidelined by injury, has made a huge impact.
“We all felt like we could do something this year,” said Primeau. “Having that mindset and going to work every day is what it’s about.”