While the usual suspects continue to light the way, a rash of injuries has opened the door to a small-scale Montreal Canadiens youth movement. And the kids are doing plenty to prove their worth.
The Habs earned a 5-3 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs at Air Canada Centre on Saturday night largely because Carey Price was his usual stellar self and the team’s top two scorers—Max Pacioretty and Alexander Radulov—padded their point totals.
But there was no denying the youngster’s contributions during a game where rookies Artturi Lehkonen and Michael McCarron scored, while Nikita Scherbak—called up just days ago from the AHL—had a memorable NHL debut, making a nifty backhand-forehand move right in front of Leafs goalie Frederik Andersen to restore a 3-2 Montreal lead with 0.9 seconds remaining in what had been a wild opening stanza.
"Honestly, I only dreamed to step on the ice in my first NHL game," said Scherbak, the 26th overall pick in the 2014 draft. "To score a goal, it’s amazing."
It’s certainly incredible that the Canadiens, playing without key figures like Alex Galchenyuk, Andrei Markov, Brendan Gallagher and Andrew Shaw, continue to win hockey games. The victory over the Leafs was Montreal’s third straight and the club ended a tough seven-game road trip with 10 of a possible 14 points in its pocket.
That would not have been possible without great work from some pretty green players.
"Guys are getting opportunities and they’re playing great," said defenceman Shea Weber.
While nobody is mistaking this for an Auston Matthews/Mitch Marner-type deal, it’s sometimes easy to overlook the fact Montreal has incorporated new blood into its roster because the focus tends to fall on the veteran leaders.
Scherbak’s quick hands against the Leafs exemplify why there’s hope for his long-term upside, while Lehkonen—who had a monster playoff in the Swedish League last spring—is quietly scoring at a 20-goal pace during his freshman campaign.
McCarron, meanwhile, was viewed as a project from the moment he was drafted 25th overall in 2013. A few years down the road, he’s beginning to look like a bona fide NHLer who can use his six-foot-six frame to impact the outcome of games.
"That’s what we’re brought here to do, fill some roles," McCarron said. "It’s unfortunate that some of our top guys are out, [but] that’s why they bring us young guys in here to produce and to continue to get points for this hockey team."
Then there’s still-young Nathan Beaulieu, who turned 24 last month and is playing the most productive hockey of his fledgling career. The left-shooting defenceman has seen his responsibilities rise recently with Markov sidelined by a groin injury and he’s responded in a big way, posting seven points in his past five outings while leading all Habs in ice time during the two wins preceding the victory over Toronto.
"Points aren’t the only thing that tells you a player is playing well, but he’s doing a lot of good things," said Weber. "He was playing well earlier in the season, too, even though he wasn’t getting points. Maybe he just wasn’t getting the recognition, but we knew he was doing some good things."
The Habs were in universal agreement that McCarron did a good thing when he engaged Leafs tough guy Matt Martin after the latter roughed up Beaulieu during a skirmish around the Habs crease. Despite his own heft, McCarron knew he’d gotten himself into a spot by dropping the gloves with the notoriously tough Martin.
"Probably wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but you know what, you can’t run over my teammate like that or something is gonna happen," he said.
Weber sent the same message to Toronto forward Zach Hyman at the end of the second period. Earlier in the frame, Hyman crashed into Price after colliding with a Montreal defender while driving the net. Even if it appeared Hyman couldn’t avoid the Habs’ star stopper, one of the red, white and blue boys was going to have something to say about it.
"It’s nice to know when you go out on the ice that your teammates have your back," Price said.