Strong start to season has Canadiens’ Drouin brimming with confidence

Brendan Gallagher scored a goal and added two assists to help the Montreal Canadiens double up the St. Louis Blues.

MONTREAL— Jonathan Drouin stood in the middle of the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room with team-awarded, Conan-the-Barbarian sword in-hand, and with a smile as wide as it could stretch across his face.

He was five minutes removed from an interview with TVA Sports’ Renaud Lavoie at centre ice—in which he was serenaded by the fans at the Bell Centre for the role he played in his team putting the boots to the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues—and he was justifiably satisfied.

With a goal and an assist in Saturday’s 6-3 win, Drouin extended his point streak to five games, which is as many as the Canadiens have played this year.

He’s brimming with confidence, skating as well as he ever has, and yeah, he’s definitely smiling a lot more right now than he did a couple of weeks ago—when his sleepy pre-season play garnered a lot of negative attention (and not just from this small corner of the hockey world).

“I feel good right now,” Drouin said.

How could he not? By now it’s an old story that’s been repeated ad nauseam, but it must be revisited to reinforce the point that Drouin is playing the way the Tampa Bay Lightning expected him to play when they drafted him third overall in 2013, and the way the Canadiens expected he’d play when they traded for him in the summer of 2017 and instantly made him their highest-paid forward: He finished last season with one goal in his last 26 games and was short-shifted on a regular basis as Montreal battled tooth-and-nail to earn the Eastern Conference’s last playoff spot. They failed, and so did he.

Drouin was publicly eviscerated for it. And despite his initiative in pouring over video with Canadiens’ assistant coach Dominique Ducharme over the summer months, he did little in September to convince people that he was in for a course correction.

But October began with Drouin shining in a hard-fought 4-3 shootout loss for the Canadiens in Carolina, and it’s rolled along with him standing out as the best Montreal forward in all their games.

He’s been their hardest worker, he’s had the biggest impact, and he’s tied for the team-lead in points (two goals, four assists).

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“I think that, at the moment, Jonathan is probably playing his best hockey since he’s been with us,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien after Saturday’s win. “He’s playing with a lot of confidence and a lot of energy, and at the same time, he’s showing what kind of impact he can have on other players as well. It’s not the others that are making him better; it’s him who’s making them better. It’s a good sign for us and he deserves a lot of credit for it.”

Absolutely. The Ste. Agathe, Que., native has earned it.

If Joel Armia (who had 13 goals in 57 games last season) has found the net three times this week, it has much to do with the work Drouin has been doing to his left. If centre Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been a more reliable option in the early going of his second NHL season, it’s at least in part due to the energy and finesse Drouin is providing. And with all three playing as confidently and as well as they are, it allows for the Canadiens’ biggest strength—their depth—to shine through.

On this night, nine of their players hit the scoresheet. The line of Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher dominated its matchup against Ryan O’Reilly, Sammy Blais and David Perron—with all three players scoring a goal apiece and combining for six points, 13 shots on net, and a Corsi-for rating of 64 per cent. Behind them, Max Domi’s line, with Jordan Weal and Artturi Lehkonen produced the game-winning goal and an empty-net deal-sealer while controlling 71 per cent of the shot attempts.

With Nate Thompson, Nick Suzuki and Paul Byron skating well as a fourth line for the Canadiens, and Drouin’s line at the height of its abilities, it was too much for St. Louis to handle.

“They played better and harder than us,” said Blues coach Craig Berube. “That’s what it boils down to.”

It was a big departure from where the Canadiens last left off—with goaltender Carey Price saying they just needed to find a way to play better after losing their second game in as many nights (4-2 to the Detroit Red Wings after a 5-4 overtime loss to the Buffalo Sabres).

They skipped practice Friday, opted for a video session instead, and they got back to the habits that earned them 96 points in the standings last season.

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Limiting the Blues to just 29 shots on net was a big improvement for the Canadiens after allowing 38.3 shots on average through their first four games. Their transition game was infinitely better, too, with Brett Kulak drawing back into the lineup and on a pairing with Jeff Petry—and with Ben Chiarot skating 17:37 next to Christian Folin after playing more than 21 minutes in each of Montreal’s first four games.

The 6-foot-3, 225-pound defenceman made a perfect pass to Drouin in the 19th minute of the first period, and it would have been the nicest play of the game had Drouin not collected that pass on his backhand and dribbled it at lightning speed before releasing it into the top corner of Jordan Binnington’s net to give Montreal a 2-1 lead.

The 24-year-old celebrated with a vigorous fist pump and smiled his way through the high-five gauntlet at the bench, just like he smiled in his interview with Lavoie and smiled in his post-game scrums.

Drouin and the Canadiens will be smiling lots if he keeps playing this way.

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