MONTREAL — All eyes were on the former Halifax Mooseheads superstar at the Bell Centre on Tuesday.
The guy we’re referring to is MacKinnon’s former Mooseheads linemate Jonathan Drouin, who was captivating from the second he stepped onto the ice to the second he left it—tossing out pucks to the crowd and doing a centre-ice interview as the first star of a 4-2 win for the Montreal Canadiens.
MacKinnon got himself a goal—his 20th point in his last 11 games—before all was said and done, but it was Drouin who put on a breathtaking display of the skill he hadn’t quite exhibited for a full game through his first 42 in a Canadiens uniform.
“It definitely did me some good to have that kind of night,” Drouin said before joining his teammates in the locker room to celebrate snapping Colorado’s impressive streak.
To have it at the Bell Centre gave Canadiens fans a taste of the potential Drouin has to be a pillar for the organization for years to come.
He offered the type of performance the Canadiens were hoping for on a more regular basis after GM Marc Bergevin pulled the trigger on the summer blockbuster that saw defenceman Mikhail Sergachev traded to the Tampa Bay Lightning in exchange for the 22-year-old.
But the kid had come into Tuesday’s game with just one goal in his last 17 outings and had recorded just six goals and 16 assists on the season, sporting an ugly minus-21 to go with a hideous 40 per cent success rate in the dot. His struggles through the first half of his first NHL season at centre were plain to see, but certainly magnified by those numbers.
Drouin’s stat line on Tuesday read a goal, two assists, a plus-2 rating and a 73 per cent efficiency in the faceoff circle. And those numbers were certainly an accurate reflection of how he played.
“He was really good,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “He was skating and making good plays, and he was really implicated tonight.”
All Drouin needed was a little bit of time and space to show it.
He got plenty from the Avalanche, which had less than its best against a rested Canadiens group after beating the Toronto Maple Leafs 4-2 a night prior.
Drouin exposed them on his very first shift, flying through the neutral zone and notching a dangerous shot without breaking stride.
In the second period Drouin won a faceoff in his own end, flew the defensive zone when Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry took possession of the puck, caught an aerial pass in the neutral zone, ran a give-and-go with linemate Alex Galchenyuk to get a clean entry to the offensive zone, and he stickhandled his way through four Avalanche players and left a blocked shot on the spot for linemate Nicolas Deslauriers to clean up and put his team up 1-0.
Drouin’s dominance on the power play a few shifts later was something to behold. Twice he darted in from the left boards and sent reverse no-look passes to Canadiens defenceman David Schlemko. Then he took a feed from Schlemko and put a perfect pass on Canadiens forward Paul Byron’s stick for a near goal.
Drouin then cut off a clearing attempt, came out of the corner and fed Byron with a backhand pass he touched over to Galchenyuk. Galchenyuk’s shot suddenly made it 2-0 Canadiens.
Drouin was dangerous on every shift that followed in the third period, setting up Petry and Max Pacioretty for chances earmarked for goals before he finished off a Petry pass to put the Canadiens up 3-1 with 9:24 remaining.
The goal ended up counting as the winner, capping Drouin’s first multi-point game since Nov. 25.
Was it his best game of the year?
“Not really, to be honest,” he said. “Sometimes it’s just points going in. Obviously I liked my game, but I’ve had some better games where I had zero points at the end of the night and still felt good about my game.”
We can’t agree that Drouin’s looked better throughout any given game this season than he did for the 18:05 he played on Tuesday. But we can concede he made some great plays that practically no one on the Canadiens capitalized on through the first 20 games.
Drouin’s numbers might look dramatically different had his teammates scored on more than five per cent of their shots over that stretch. But he hasn’t had another night this year where he outshone such quality competition as clearly as he did MacKinnon in this one.
“We always love to play against each other. There’s always a little competition there,” said Drouin.
MacKinnon and Drouin combined for 180 points in 49 games with the QMJHL’s Mooseheads in 2012-13, adding a combined 68 points en route to a league championship before leading them to a Memorial Cup. They were highlight-producing machines who shared the spotlight all season long before being selected first and third overall, respectively, just a couple of months later at the NHL Draft.
MacKinnon has been front and centre in a breakout 24-goal, 53-point campaign this year, but it was Drouin who took the lion’s share of the attention on Tuesday.