Canadiens’ youth movement a positive as slide continues with loss to Lightning

Nikita Kucherov gave the Lightning the lead in the first and Tampa Bay held on to top the Montreal Canadiens 2-1.

MONTREAL — The sequence was a minute and six seconds long and it encapsulated what the Montreal Canadiens have to be most optimistic about.

It featured the third-overall pick in the 2018 Draft and the 25th-overall pick in the 2017 Draft making a group of five Tampa Bay Lightning players with over 2,000 games of experience between them look like a bunch of rookies. It was 19-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi weaving in and out of traffic and Ryan Poehling, who was hours away from turning 21, applying pressure and winning key battles against the likes of Steven Stamkos, Alex Killorn and Ryan McDonagh to create Grade A scoring chances the Canadiens ultimately failed to capitalize on.

But it was a dominant shift, and if there was one positive for the Canadiens and their fans to take out of another tough loss — a fourth in a row for this hobbled team whose playoff hopes are seemingly hanging by a thread, even with half a season to play — it’s that the kids showed their promise on it.

And it wasn’t just Kotkaniemi and Poehling, who were both excellent in the 2-1 loss to the Lightning; it was 20-year-old Nick Suzuki, who was held off the scoresheet for just the second time in his last eight games but played a career-high (20:43) for a third-straight game and was arguably Montreal’s best player.

Lukas Vejdemo, the 23-year-old who was drafted 87th overall in 2015 and was playing in his second-ever NHL game, was by consensus one of their more effective ones. He might have only played 9:18, but he helped the Canadiens control 80 per cent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 when he was on the ice.

Then there’s 20-year-old rookie Cale Fleury, who had three shots on net, two big hits and a block in just under 16 minutes of play.

Here’s what Canadiens captain Shea Weber, a 15-year veteran and three-time Norris Trophy finalist, had to say about that kid.

“He’s playing with a lot more confidence,” Weber started, “he’s always had poise at points. And I think his ability to make plays and, even a couple times tonight, skate through the middle and get a shot on net, and obviously delivers a big hit there in the third (on Cedrik Paquette).

“It’s kind of a young guy just getting more comfortable the more time he gets and the more experience he gets, and I think he’s going to just keep getting better.”

You can say the same of Kotkaniemi, Poehling, Suzuki and Vejdemo, and you can conclude that there’s no more important development for the Canadiens than that.

That they have to depend on these kids to take on so much while veterans Jonathan Drouin, Brendan Gallagher, Joel Armia and Paul Byron are nursing injuries, is a big part of the reason the odds are stacked against them in this playoff race.

But if the Canadiens are going to become a perennial playoff contender moving forward, if they’re going to eventually turn into a Stanley Cup contender, nights like these — where the kids help them earn a 39-23 shot advantage, a 70-40 shot-attempt advantage and a 16-12 scoring-chance advantage over a talent-laden group like the Lightning — are essential. Even if the end result is a loss.

“When you play Tampa, and I know they’ve had a slow start, but they’ve been good as of late and to me we were the better team tonight,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “Anybody who watched the game and knows the game knows we were the better team, and that’s because we had our guys, our young guys and our call-ups (from the AHL’s Laval Rocket) and everybody from the first guy to the last player working hard and competing hard and caring. So that’s the thing that you just wish, and I say it again, I just wish you could have a positive result at the end of the game to reward these guys for how hard they’re working.”

It was Kotkaniemi’s hard work at the end of the first-period power play that allowed Jeff Petry the space to get to the middle of the ice and uncork the shot that tied the game 1-1. Though he wasn’t compensated with an assist on the play, his work on it was indicative of the way he’s played since he returned from a recent eight-game absence with a concussion—on his toes and engaged in the battle.

And Kotkaniemi’s shift in the middle of the second period, with Poehling and Jordan Weal buzzing beside him, led to three quality scoring chances.

Weal said you could see the potential in both of his young linemates.

“Some of our shifts were a great example of that,” he said, “we had a lot of really good zone-time, we were working the puck around, creating opportunities, creating chances. It just wasn’t going in tonight, but for those young guys it’s just a matter of bringing it night-in, night-out, because that’s the toughest thing about being a pro (is) that consistency and they’re getting a lot better at it. It’s going to be exciting moving forward.”

It’s tough going for the Canadiens, who rank sixth in the Atlantic Division right now.

As Julien said, they’re as hard-working of a team as he can ask for, but their efforts just aren’t being compensated. The fact that they lead the NHL in shot attempts and rank second in scoring chances from the high-danger zone says much about them deserving more than the 42 points they’ve earned in the standings through 41 games.

But even though their current situation is a hard one for their fans to digest, the future looks brighter with each passing day.

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