NEWARK, N.J. — The Montreal Canadiens came to New Jersey with a built-in excuse in their back pocket.
They came without starting goaltender Carey Price, who was too sick to travel. They came with several guys recovering from the stomach flu and six or seven more suffering with it. Jordan Weal and Victor Mete were two more on top of that, and they were left at the team’s hotel because they proved to be too under the weather to play. And after cancelling practice on Monday, the Canadiens packed up their plane, landed in Newark and immediately decided to cancel Tuesday’s morning skate.
As Canadiens coach Claude Julien put it after they erased a 3-0 lead and battled back for a 5-4 shootout win just moments removed from squandering their 4-3 lead with 20 seconds left in regulation, “It wasn’t the whole team that was depleted, but the entire team played like it was at the start.”
Rust was a factor against the New Jersey Devils. Illness was undoubtedly one, too.
But what the Canadiens conjured to combat all of that will play large in the grand scheme of things, in what appears to be a season that will end in a third-consecutive miss of the Stanley Cup Playoffs, and in the face of many of their fans hoping for them to lose each and every one of their remaining games to increase their draft-lottery odds. Because this team, which still believes in its hopes (no matter how dim they appear), was carried by its veterans to a highly improbable win while two of its youngest players learned something about what’s required in a situation like that — and in this league.
It was 20-year-old rookie Nick Suzuki who said afterwards that seeing 31-year-old Dale Weise engage in a fight with Devils forward John Hayden — just seconds after Kyle Palmieri scored his first of two goals to give New Jersey a 2-0 lead — made it abundantly clear to him that the Canadiens should not let down in this game.
“(Weise) was telling everybody, ‘We’re not quitting here, we’re going to bounce back,’” said Julien. “So good for him.”
It was good for Ryan Poehling, the 21-year-old who was riding shotgun on Weise’s line with 35-year-old Nate Thompson.
Poehling was one of the players who was so sick he had to leave the bench a couple of times during the game.
But he kept coming back.
It was Poehling who sent Thompson in for Montreal’s second goal, scored 3:58 after Joel Armia got the Canadiens on the board with a shorthanded marker in the dying moments of the second period. It was Poehling who said post-game that this was a reminder to him and everyone else that, when this team commits to playing the right way, it can do what it did on this night or any other night.
“I think that’s the biggest thing moving forward is that if we can bring our best each game, it’ll help us a lot.”
It might not make the difference this season. In fact, it probably won’t.
But the biggest thing moving forward is what kids like Poehling, Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cale Fleury have taken from this group of veterans, which has proven time and time again that it doesn’t quit.
“It’s huge. It’s giant, actually,” said Canadiens goaltender Charlie Lindgren, who stumbled out of the gate with a bad goal given to New Jersey’s Miles Wood before rebounding with 33 saves, stopping all three shots in the shootout to preserve his first win of the season.
“Being around these guys, we have a great veteran group here, and Ryan, Nick, KK, Flower — I know they look up to these guys. They have 20 years left to play in this league, knock on wood, and those are the best guys to look up to. Great character guys, great leaders, and eventually those kids are going to become that.”
That’s the goal. It’s for Suzuki to look at the way Brendan Gallagher competes at 100 per cent in all situations and borrow from his tenacity. It’s for Poehling to watch Weise, Armia and 36-year-old former Devil Ilya Kovalchuk (who won the game with a shootout goal on Louis Domingue) and realize how he needs to use his six-foot-two frame to his advantage. It’s for both of them to see what’s required in order to win — even when the deck is stacked heavily against you.
And when both Suzuki and Poehling contribute in a cause like Tuesday’s — regardless of the Devils being the third-worst team in the standings, and regardless of the Devils being without important players like Nico Hischier, P.K. Subban and Sami Vatanen — they earn what they covet most.
“The veterans learn to respect them even more when (they) see guys doing those kind of things,” said Julien.
There can be no greater confidence boost for a young player than earning respect from teammates like 34-year-old captain Shea Weber, Gallagher or Thompson, who has rightfully earned his reputation as an excellent mentor to all the kids in Montreal’s room this season.
“I look up to all these guys,” said Suzuki. “No matter the situation, they just stay calm in the moment.
“You feed off that. You just have to have that attitude that you’re never out of it. I’m trying to take everything I can from those guys and carry it forward.”
That’s the idea.