It was just your average Sunday-afternoon intra-squad scrimmage, except with more than 15,000 screaming fans in attendance and some players treating it like a Stanley Cup Playoff game.
Welcome to Montreal, Ben Chiarot.
“I’ve never seen anything like that,” the freshly signed Canadiens defenceman said afterwards.
Get used to it, Ben.
Oh, by the way, how was the game?
“It felt good to get out there and hit some guys,” the six-foot-three, 225-pounder said.
Chiarot wasn’t the only one throwing his weight around in what turned out to be a rather chippy affair at the Bell Centre.
Les gars prennent le match intraéquipe au sérieux.
— Canadiens Montréal (@CanadiensMTL) September 15, 2019
So yeah, it was intense. Especially for the young players trying to make their mark in the limited window they have to perhaps convince Canadiens coaches Claude Julien, Luke Richardson, Dominique Ducharme and Kirk Muller they’re worthy of a spot in the opening-night lineup.
About them, two in particular were at the centre of virtually everyone’s attention. Nick Suzuki and Ryan Poehling, prospects chosen 12 picks apart in the first round of the 2017 Draft, are both pushing for spots with the Canadiens and it probably wasn’t a coincidence they were matched up against each other for Sunday’s scrimmage.
It was an entertaining battle to watch, with Poehling earning an assist and Suzuki making several quality plays. Afterwards, we asked Drouin to put his scouting cap on to give us a report on both players.
“I don’t want to fully compare him to Brayden Point where maybe he’s missing that speed, but, in the next couple of years, if it comes, he’s that kind of player where he just kind of does everything right,” Drouin said about Suzuki. “It’s maybe not the boom, spectacular play every time, but he makes little smart plays. He makes the right plays where it makes a difference.
“I was there in Halifax for the Memorial Cup last spring and you could see Suzuki’s poise (with the Ontario Hockey League’s Guelph Storm) was really there. His playmaking ability, small plays, big plays — he made them all. I was impressed.”
And on Poehling, who made his NHL debut with a hat trick and a shootout winner in Montreal’s final game of the 2018-19 season?
“He’s a big, powerful forward and he has speed,” Drouin said. “I think his hands are underrated. I skated with him this summer, he’s got quick hands and they’re quick on his quick wrist shot. I think you saw last year that he can play in this league, and hopefully he just keeps growing and growing and growing as a player.”
There’s no question Poehling has transformed considerably since that remarkable night at the Bell Centre back in April. For one, his confidence has grown from the experience of getting into an NHL game. And, on the physical front, he jumped into summer training quickly, put an emphasis on improving his cardio in preparation for playing a much more rigorous schedule than the one he was on at the college level, and he’s feeling stronger and much faster than he was five months ago.
“I have a good stride, a long one,” Poehling said. “I gained a lot of power in the summer, though. When you have more power to push into it I think you do get a little bit more speed out of it.”
It was clear that extra jump was there when Poehling chased down a puck on one of his shifts in the second half of Sunday’s game. The jets were on as he beat Brett Kulak to a puck behind the net and found linemate Matthew Peca for a chance in front.
Speaking of finding players in open ice, Suzuki did that a number of times on Sunday.
On one play in particular, he took the puck down the right wing and slowed his pace through the neutral zone before two Canadiens defenders sprinted over to cut him off. Suzuki drew them in and then put a perfect pass on linemate Jordan Weal’s tape and Weal got a good rush opportunity out of it.
It was a play that showed off just how deceptive a player Suzuki is, one that he felt boosted his confidence in the game.
“I think I’m good at finding guys through little holes,” Suzuki said afterwards. “(Weal) did a good job of staying in the middle and getting behind those guys and I just had to feed it through them, so I feel like that’s a strong suit of my game.”
Suzuki also had four quality scoring chances and showed some nice chemistry with Weal and left winger Charles Hudon.
“I thought I got to show a good amount,” he said. “Created a lot of chances. My line was brand new, we’ve only skated together for a couple of days, but I thought we generated a lot of chances. Have to clean up a couple of things in the D-zone, but I guess that just comes with repetition of playing the games.”
There’s a good chance Suzuki will be in the lineup on Monday, when the Canadiens welcome the New Jersey Devils to the Bell Centre for their first pre-season game.
Poehling won’t be in action, but with six more games on the team’s exhibition schedule he’ll have plenty more opportunity to show what he’s capable of.
“I just think that I want to prove that I’m ready,” said Poehling. “I think I’ve been ready, and I had a long summer and worked hard and I know I’m young and everyone says that coming out of college the long season is going to fatigue me, but I just want to show people and get the chance to show people that I am ready for this.”
After watching both Poehling and Suzuki in their first game of training camp, both players appear ready for the challenge in front of them.