MONTREAL — The show was for the kids, but the sideshow was for us — and for the Montreal Canadiens organization.
Saturday was Family Day at Bell Centre, with a matinee game attracting thousands of young patrons who left awed by a rare five-goal performance by the Canadiens and a flat-out shocking 43-save show from beleaguered backup goaltender Antti Niemi.
They got to see Jeff Petry score two goals, Joe Morrow riffle one on a first-period power play and Logan Shaw notch his first in a Montreal uniform to open up the scoring against the team that waived him on Jan. 15. Even David Schlemko found the back of the net for his first of the season. It added up to a 5-2 win over the Anaheim Ducks, which meant free chicken wings for fans who cared to visit corporate sponsor Cage Aux Sports after the game. It was quite a spectacle!
Meanwhile, we were watching the game within the game. The one that matters most now that the Canadiens have all but spoiled their chances of participating in this year’s playoffs — holding the NHL’s 28th-best record, sitting 17 points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division and nine points back of the Eastern Conference’s second wild card-holding Philadelphia Flyers. The one of player development; depending on younger players in pivotal situations and throwing caution — and perhaps the results — to the wind by focusing on the bigger picture of creating a brighter future for the team.
It’s in that vein that we expected to see a 19-year-old defenceman in Victor Mete and a 22-year-old call-up in Nikita Scherbak take on more responsibility, especially after the Canadiens took a 4-0 lead just 3:45 into the second period of Saturday’s game.
Mete has shown he has the goods to play at this level, but he’s also been exposed at times against significantly bigger, heavier and stronger players. What better opportunity would there be for him to improve in that area than to be thrown to wolves like Ryan Getzlaf, Corey Perry and Ryan Kesler? Especially with a big, early lead alleviating some of the pressure.
But if the intention was there from Canadiens coach Claude Julien, the follow-through wasn’t. Mete played just 3:08 in the second period after playing 3:56 in the first. He finished the game playing 13:20 — or 1:53 less than his season average of 15:13.
Scherbak had produced 30 points in 24 AHL contests with the Laval Rocket and was coming up to a Canadiens team that couldn’t find the back of a soccer net in recent games. The opportunity looked promising when he started on a line with Jonathan Drouin and Alex Galchenyuk, but he played just 1:34 of the second period after producing an assist in his 3:26 of the first.
A shot that struck Drouin in the back sent him to the hospital halfway through the second period (X-rays came back negative) and forced Julien to shuffle his deck. Three penalties Drouin’s teammates took in the period certainly limited opportunity for Mete and Scherbak, who don’t kill penalties.
Neither Mete or Scherbak played as much as they should have in the game, but it was a good sign to see the former hop over the boards with more frequency in the third period, and it was even more encouraging to see the latter join a line with Paul Byron and Max Pacioretty for 5:41 of the frame.
“I liked [Scherbak’s] game,” said Julien in French. “I think he’s a guy who improved his skating a lot from last year. The speed, the pace of his game is a lot better. I liked the fact that he played well in all aspects of the game, he back-checked well, was alert. All the same, he was patient on the goal from Morrow. I saw a guy who has a pretty decent brain for the game of hockey and I’m very satisfied with his game.”
Then in English: “Hopefully with a little more stability he gets more ice time moving forward.”
That has to be the approach from this day forward if the Canadiens are hoping to fast-track the development of these players.
The value of doing so is indisputable.
“It was huge for me to get that opportunity to play with such great players like [Byron and Pacioretty],” Scherbak said.
Going up against Kesler for most of his shifts and facing Getzlaf and Perry on others was big for Mete, too.
“Being a small guy, I want to be able to test myself against bigger, stronger guys,” said Mete. “You have to be able to play against those guys in games, and I think it’s really good for my development.”
It’s essential, even if it means coming up on the wrong side of those matchups on occasion.
Julien recognizes it.
“[Mete’s] going to, at some point, play more against those types of players,” said Julien. “He’s been playing more minutes and decent minutes, and I think his development — in my book, anyway — is going in the right direction. I see a guy who’s poised, who’s consistent and who’s only going to get better.”
That sideshow is much more important to the organization at this stage than putting on a spectacle for the fans paying top dollar to watch a team that hasn’t been worth more than pennies on most nights.
It’s the one we’ll be watching more closely over the remaining 30 games of Montreal’s season.