MONTREAL — Jonathan Drouin sat in the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room, in the centre of a scrum that was roughly 30 reporters deep, with cameras clicking, lights flashing in his eyes and the team-awarded, player-of-the-game cape folded neatly on the seat beside him.
He may as well have been wearing it during Montreal’s 5-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets at the Bell Centre on Thursday.
“He was flying,” said linemate Brendan Gallagher.
“That was some big Jo,” said other linemate Phillip Danault.
That was some of the biggest Jo we’ve seen in the National Hockey League to date; a performance that magnified all the qualities that saw him chosen third overall by the Tampa Bay Lightning at the 2013 Draft and coveted by the Canadiens in the 2017 trade that sent Mikhail Sergachev the other way; the type of dominant performance only players of a certain caliber can offer; the type of performance that leaves you wanting more.
“It’s hard finding that consistency,” Drouin said.
But performances like these are signs of growth in the process — especially given the quality of competition.
For the majority of the 16:03 Drouin spent on the ice, he (along with Gallagher and Danault) was matched up against the omnipotent trio of Kyle Connor, Mark Scheifele and Blake Wheeler.
The result? Drouin scored two goals, added two assists, registered nine of Montreal’s season-high 53 shots, finished plus-3 and had a 65.12 per-cent Corsi For. In other words, he was superb bordering on superhuman in this one.
Danault also had a goal and three assists to reach the 40-point mark, and Gallagher had two assists as well.
And the Canadiens as a whole? They were pedal-to-the-floor fast, suffocating on the forecheck, no-holds-barred on the backcheck, and just fuel-injected from puck drop to final buzzer.
“From the beginning to the end, I thought we played the same way,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “We didn’t let up, we worked hard at both ends of the ice.”
And they came out with a convincing win against one of the NHL’s best teams.
It started with a goal against, when Scheifele buried a pass from Connor on a two-on-one that developed on an ill-timed Montreal line change.
But a little less than three minutes later, Drouin came charging down the left wing and snapped a shot on net. The puck was collected by Gallagher on the rebound, skated to the side of Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck and dropped off to Drouin in the slot before being pumped into the top-right quadrant of the net.
Forty-three seconds into the middle frame, Drouin took advantage of a botched Ben Chiarot pass and turned on the afterburners to create a two-on-one with Gallagher. He then looked pass, shifted the puck quickly to his forehand and shot it over Hellebuyck’s glove in one swift motion for his second goal of the game.
Before the game got to the second intermission, Drouin missed two golden opportunities to become the first Francophone player to score a hat trick in a Canadiens uniform at the Bell Centre since Vincent Damphousse did it in 1998. In the third, he made a perfect pass to Shea Weber for the goal that made it 3-1, and he set up 18-year-old Jesperi Kotkaniemi on the power play for his fourth goal in as many games.
“I thought I was involved every shift,” said Drouin.
He took 21 of them and made something happen in each one — extending a three-game streak that’s seen him record nine points, bringing his total to 46 points in 55 games.
The consistency may not quite be where Drouin wants it to be yet — he’s 23 and has time to find a way to contribute more frequently — but he has shown he has a knack for stepping up in big games.
“I’ve shown that before in junior (he scored 102 points in 50 playoff games in his three seasons with the QMJHL’s Halifax Mooseheads) and also in the NHL in the playoffs one year (14 points in 17 games with the Lightning in 2016),” said Drouin. “But this is something I want to prove.”
He’s not alone.
This game offered the Canadiens a chance to prove what they can do when they execute their game plan, when they have everyone pulling in the same direction, when they ready themselves to expend a playoff-style effort. They took advantage of it.
“This wasn’t one of those things where I said, ‘This is a big game, guys,’ said Julien. “[I said,] ‘This is an exciting game tonight.’
“We respected them. I didn’t say we were intimidated by them, but we respected them and we knew we had to play well. And we went out there and just took charge, and again — a good 60-minute effort, that’s all I can say.”
That’s what it will require against the sixth-place Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, the fifth-place Nashville Predators next Thursday and the first-place Lightning next Saturday.
It’ll only help the Canadiens if the Drouin who showed up to play the third-place Jets can keep the ball rolling.