How Canadiens’ Suzuki handles first slump is key for his development

Victor Hedman scores the opening goal and the last goal of the game, as the Tampa Bay Lightning shut out the Montreal Canadiens 4-0.

Nick Suzuki’s ice-time hasn’t really dipped, but his production certainly has.

It was another point-less night for the 20-year-old rookie — this one in a 4-0 loss for his Montreal Canadiens to a Tampa Bay Lightning team that had come into Thursday’s game having dropped five of their last six, and after reportedly holding a spirited practice and a 20-minute video meeting on Wednesday, while several members of the Canadiens were taking batting practice at a nearby ballpark in Lakeland, Fla.

The outcome was what you’d expect, with Canadiens leading scorer Tomas Tatar out with an upper-body injury and heart-and-soul winger Brendan Gallagher sidelined by the flu.

Former Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin could have helped, but an ankle injury has kept him out of Canadiens games since Feb 25.

With three top-six forwards missing, the spotlight was on Suzuki. But he missed finding the score sheet for a seventh-straight game after not having gone more than four without a point previously this season.

Fear not. This is par for the course, nothing to be alarmed about, and it has as much to do with him as it does his Canadiens teammates, who are all having trouble scoring of late. Every offensive player in the NHL hits the skids at one point or another, and it says much about the promise Suzuki has shown that he’s avoided doing it for this long.

But it’s no coincidence that it’s happening now — not only with the Canadiens down several key players, but also at a time of the season when the checking becomes tighter, when the officiating becomes laxer and when teams are gearing up for playoff runs while Suzuki’s team is tumbling down towards a lottery pick.

His effort in Thursday’s game was commendable. He played 18:48, took some shifts at centre and on the wing, registered three shots on net and five attempts, and he ran Montreal’s most effective-looking power play in over two weeks — even if it failed to score. In the grand scheme of things, that’s important.

With 13 games left in this utterly forgettable Canadiens season, there’s an opportunity at hand for Suzuki to push through the first real adversity he’s faced at this level. If the London, Ont., native, who has 13 goals and 40 points, can find the energy to do it — we suspect some has been zapped by a 93-game 2018-19 season and a short summer before working his way onto the Montreal roster and appearing in all 69 of the team’s games — it will help him approach his sophomore season with the confidence to take a big step forward rather than one back.

VALUABLE EXPERIENCE FOR EVANS, BUT…

It’s more than that for the 23-year-old prospect, and he knows it.

When Nate Thompson was traded to the Philadelphia Flyers on April 24, Jake Evans was promoted from the American Hockey League’s Laval Rocket to prove he can earn his position on Montreal’s fourth line. So far, he’s excelling in some departments but struggling in others.

It would be an exaggeration to suggest Evans looked fully comfortable in his season-high 13:51 against a speedy, hungry and explosive Tampa team. He was pushed off the puck quite easily in the neutral zone and had a hard time guiding his line to sustained pressure in the offensive zone.

What you have to like is that Evans still managed to create a couple of chances for himself — one of which was a breakaway opportunity that helped the Canadiens draw a power play, and the other was a slot chance on the power play on one of his four shots on net in the game. And kudos to the Toronto native for winning all three faceoffs he took.

Evans has now won 61 per cent of his faceoffs in his first 11 NHL games, and if he keeps it up it’ll only help him make his case.

But there has to be more from him over the next 13 games.

For what it’s worth, no one knows him better than Rocket and Canadiens teammate Karl Alzner, who believes Evans will be able to prove himself.

“He doesn’t make these plays at super high speed, with super quick hands like you’d see with Domi or Drouin, but he always makes the plays happen,” Alzner told us a few days ago. “He’s just one of those guys who always finds a way. I think he’s going to find a way.”

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HABS MUST CONTINUE TO GIVE HUDON AN OFFENSIVE LOOK

Maybe this is Charles Hudon’s last kick at the can with Montreal, but if it is, they might as well give him a chance to show he can perform in a role he’s actually suited to play.

In the last game against the New York Islanders, the 25-year-old got mixed up in a line change and found himself on the ice with Gallagher and top-line centre Phillip Danault. He immediately buried his first goal of the season.

On Thursday, Hudon played the bulk of his minutes with Suzuki and Joel Armia and he probably would have registered a couple of assists had Armia buried the chances he gave him. He played a steady game, with the Canadiens controlling 64 per cent of the shot attempts at even strength while he was on the ice, and it’s worth seeing if he can keep it up over a larger sample.

QUICK HITS

• It was a forgettable evening for goaltender Carey Price, who allowed four goals on 23 shots.

Shea Weber had his first fight — more of a wrestling match with former Canadien Mikhail Sergachev — since his April of 2017 scuffle with former Lightning player, then New York Ranger and current Vancouver Canuck J.T. Miller.

• With just 17:12 in ice-time on Thursday, Weber played less than 20 minutes in a game for time this season.

UP NEXT

The Canadiens wrap up their three-game road trip with a game against the Florida Panthers on Saturday.

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