MONTREAL— If this was supposed to be a sprint to the finish, the Montreal Canadiens stormed out of the blocks and then stumbled just a few steps into the race.
The result was a 4-2 loss to the NHL-leading Washington Capitals, who improved to a lifetime 15-14-2 without their perennial MVP, Alex Ovechkin, who was serving his mandatory one-game suspension for skipping the All-Star Game.
Long story short: The Canadiens got an early lead, squandered it with 1:30 remaining in the first period, got down 3-1 after playing what most the players—and their coach—categorized as a “sloppy” second period, and then they fell just short of tying the game.
It was a backbreaking loss.
And in a lot of ways, it was a Groundhog Day performance from a team that’s earned its ranking as the 24th-best in the NHL.
So let’s talk about something else that happened on Monday, because it seems much more relevant to the big picture than the playoff race does at this point. Let’s talk about 20-year-old Nick Suzuki, who was unquestionably Montreal’s best player not named Carey Price in this game.
He set up two goals in the third period to tie this game, but only one of them went in. It came off Dale Weise’s stick—a tap-in for the 31-year-old who was playing in his 500th NHL game.
About the one that missed: Suzuki picked the puck up behind Washington’s net, skated out like he was going to feed the point and then threw a spinning, blind backhand pass that Joel Armia tipped off the post. It was brilliant.
But the puck rolled its way up the bar and Braden Holtby snatched it with his glove before it could fully cross the goal line.
This was a period after Suzuki had engaged hulking Capitals winger Tom Wilson and baited him into a taking a penalty, and after he had put together an impressive first period—making several smart decisions at both ends.
He had clearly come out of the gate prepared to play this game like Montreal’s season was on the line. And you know what? There was nothing surprising about it.
When Suzuki had led the Ontario Hockey League playoffs in scoring before dazzling at the Memorial Cup last spring—helping the Guelph Storm fight off a 3-0 series deficit to the London Knights, helping them dig out of a 3-1 hole against the Saginaw Spirit, and helping them capture a league championship with 16 goals and 42 points—we saw what kind of player he was when the chips were down.
“It felt like we played probably 10 do-or-die games in the London series, in Saginaw,” Suzuki said after Monday’s game. “I think I learned a lot through that. Just not wanting to go home was my kind of mindset there.”
He brought it to the first of 32 games the Canadiens were scheduled to play from Sunday to the end of the season.
Unfortunately, not all of the Canadiens were on the same page.
Did the bounces go against them? Absolutely.
A puck literally bounced off Jeff Petry’s skate and past a helpless Price on Washington’s second goal. And on the Capitals’ third, Shea Weber, fresh off his appearance at the NHL All-Star Game, uncharacteristically over-skated the puck and left it for Capitals superstar Evgeny Kuznetsov, who quickly made an elite play to T.J. Oshie, who himself made an elite play to give Jakub Vrana his 23rd marker of the season.
But, as they say, you make your own luck.
And about an hour after Vrana’s goal, Canadiens coach Claude Julien delivered his exasperated comments.
“Our sloppiness cost us (the game), and we can’t afford to be sloppy,” Julien said, making what could be considered the understatement of the season.
“How can you explain that, Claude,” one reporter asked.
“There’s things I can’t explain,” the coach responded. “You guys ask me questions like, ‘How can I explain that.’ I don’t know. Did you ask the players? I know our preparation for the game is one way, and then at a certain point, it’s up to the players to concentrate and to do what we’re asking them to do. But when they don’t do them and they’re not well-concentrated in the minute, this is what happens.”
This has now happened 17 times on home ice and 12 more times on the road this season. Hence the Canadiens are 10 points back of a playoff spot despite having played at least one more game than the teams occupying those precious positions, and they’re staring up at three non-playoff teams that are in their way.
So yeah, what happened with Suzuki on Monday seems much more important than any of that.
The kid’s assist to Weise gave him his 28th point of the season and put him in fifth among NHL rookies in scoring. And in this game, he lined up mostly against future Hall of Famer Nicklas Backstrom—and at times against Kuznetsov and shutdown centre Lars Eller—and managed to win 10 of 14 faceoffs he took and helped his team control 62 per cent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5.
“Man, this guy’s going to be an elite player,” said Weise. “He initiates contact with Wilson on the one play there. I’m so impressed. After being here and getting a chance to see (him) every day, he plays in traffic, he’s got high-level skill, (and) he goes to the dirty areas. He’s got a very, very bright future ahead of him.”
If it comes quickly—and it looks like it’s coming quickly—that will only help the Canadiens avoid going down the same path again next season.