MONTREAL–It is the silver lining to this failed Montreal Canadiens season: Three goals on three shots and a shootout winner for Ryan Poehling in his National Hockey League debut, offering yet another glimpse of a bright future for the organization.
“I think as progressively things went on it just got more and more surreal, it was just special,” Poehling said after the Canadiens 6-5 shootout win over the Toronto Maple Leafs in Bob Cole’s final Hockey Night In Canada broadcast. “It feels like a dream. I don’t know what to say. Honestly, I’m just in shock right now.”
That’s something to build on for a team missing the playoffs for a second-straight year and a third time in the past four seasons. And a team with an American Hockey League affiliate that will miss them for the sixth time in the last seven years. But some really good players are on their way to the Canadiens. Some of them, like Poehling, are already here.
Nick Suzuki, acquired in the pre-season deal that sent Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights for a 2019 second-round pick and Tomas Tatar, just capped a 96-point season split between the Ontario Hockey League’s Owen Sound Attack and Guelph Storm. He already has four goals and seven points in five playoff games this spring.
A pair of 19-year-old Finns in Joni Ikonen and Jesse Ylonen flashed NHL talent this year in the country’s top league while Montreal’s Russian defensive protégé, Alexander Romanov, established himself as one of the best players playing outside the world’s top league.
Earlier on Saturday, Poehling, an American from Lakeville, MN., was raving about the Kontinental Hockey League defenceman he squared off against at this year’s World Junior Championships.
“He’s physical, smart, quick,” he said before adding, “He’s the real deal.”
Poehling was also heaping praise on Canadian World Junior rival Josh Brook, the Yorktown, SK., native chosen 56th overall by the Canadiens in 2017. The defenceman followed up a 75-point season with the Western Hockey League’s Moosejaw Warriors by signing his entry-level deal with the Canadiens and joining the AHL’s Laval Rocket a little over a week ago. Days later, the team’s seventh-rounder from that same draft, goaltender Cayden Primeau, left Northeastern University after two banner years and skirted his final two years of college eligibility to join the Rocket, too.
Down there, in Laval, 2017 third-rounder Cale Fleury has had a solid rookie season—producing nine goals and 21 points in 56 games, and prompting 24-year-old goaltender Charlie Lindgren (who spent the entirety of his season in Laval before making 44 saves Saturday) to refer to him as a special player.
“Noah Juulsen’s another guy,” Lindgren added, in reference to the 22-year-old defenceman who appeared in games with both the Canadiens and Rocket this season before suffering an eye injury that forced him to the sidelines for the months of 2019. “There’s a few guys down there that are coming.”
And then there are the young members of the Canadiens core who took massive strides and gained a world of experience over the last seven months. A player like 20-year-old Victor Mete, who emerged as a top-four defenceman. One like 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the third overall pick from the 2018 Draft, who scored 11 goals and 34 points in 78 games.
“When a guy like that spends a whole season here, he sees it’s clear to him what he needs to work on, what he needs to improve on,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “His skill level is not a question mark at all. Not at all. But he’s 18 years old. He needs to get stronger. He needs to realize how hard it gets in the second half.
“Eventually they get stronger, eventually they gain experience, eventually their skill level rises to the top when they learn to play the game the right way. He’s from Finland. He’s learning the North American way—smaller rinks, stronger players. This is the NHL, so there’s a ton of things I think if he’s a smart kid, which he is, he’ll figure all that stuff out and come back a better player.”
You have to think Poehling, who was only with the Canadiens for a week after finishing up his college career at St. Cloud State University with 75 points in 107 games, grew leaps and bounds from the short experience.
He impressed everyone on Saturday, including Toronto’s Auston Matthews, who set an NHL record in his 2016 debut by scoring four goals in 17:37 in a loss to the Ottawa Senators.
“I was getting worried there that he was going to bury the fourth one and I’d be standing not by myself anymore,” said Matthews. “Happy for him. It would’ve been nice obviously to win a game, but all of us have been in that position, playing our first game. To score one goal is obviously incredible. And the night he had was unbelievable. A special night for him, I’m sure. One he’ll remember for a really long time.”
It was a special night for the Canadiens as well, one that was shaping up to be anything but that after being eliminated from the playoffs a night prior. Aside from Poehling, Jordan Weal and Andrew Shaw scored and Max Domi added his 44th assist of the season to finish with 72 points—or 20 more than he’s scored in any of his three previous seasons.
He was one of nine players on the Canadiens to reach career highs in points this year. Jeff Petry, another player from that group, also recorded an assist in the game and afterwards talked about a 96-point season the Canadiens should be proud of—even if the disappointment of missing the playoffs will linger.
And then he pointed to what he couldn’t help but think about in his final moments standing in the Canadiens’ Bell Centre dressing room this season.
“I knew nothing about Ryan Poehling before he got here,” he said. “He was magic tonight. The future looks great. It’s nice to have young talent. (24-year-old) Domi had a great year. Kotkaniemi stepped in, and when we drafted him no one knew what was going to happen with him but he came in and played the hardest position to play for the majority of the games. And you could see the strides Mete took over the summer and throughout the course of this year. It’s exciting to see that we have young talent here and talent coming as well.”
The stuff silver linings are made of.