Suzuki, Fleury proving readiness for regular season time with Canadiens

The Montreal Canadiens capitalized scoring three power play goals in their 4-0 victory over the Ottawa Senators.

Sure, it’s pre-season, but you can say a 27-save shutout for Keith Kinkaid in his Montreal Canadiens debut was just what the doctor ordered.

It had to be a welcome site for Canadiens coach Claude Julien, who said earlier on Saturday that he just wants “to see (Kinkaid) perform.”

“We want to see Kinkaid play the way we think he can,” the coach added.

Mission accomplished for the 30-year-old from Farmington, N.Y.

Kinkaid, who signed with the Canadiens this off-season for one year at $1.75 million, wrapped the night with four saves as the Canadiens were killing their fifth penalty. His first-period stop on Ottawa Senators forward Alex Formenton was one for the ages. He made several more good ones on Brady Tkachuk, Jean-Gabriel Pageau, Cody Golubef and Anthony Duclair.

This is the guy the Canadiens need this season. Not the one who stumbled through 41 games with the New Jersey Devils last season—going 15-18-6 and putting up a sub-standard .891 save percentage and a not-so-flattering 3.36 goals-against average. If Kinkaid can perform this way, it will enable the Canadiens to stick to their plan of limiting starter Carey Price to around 60 games.

It’ll only help Kinkaid if the Canadiens play the way they did in front of him on Saturday in Ottawa. They went 3-for-4 on the power play, had 34 shots on net and 31 hits in their 4-0 win at Canadian Tire Centre.

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THE BIG TAKEAWAY

Nick Suzuki, the 13th overall pick in the 2017 Draft, had another excellent night.

Yes, the assist he notched and the screen job he managed on Tomas Tatar’s third-period power-play marker was a perfect example of his elite hockey sense. And yes, he made a bunch of nifty passes in the game and appeared extremely comfortable in his first tryout at wing alongside Tatar and Phillip Danault.

Here’s what you really have to like if you’re Julien: Suzuki’s awareness and his positioning.

On one shift, the 20-year-old sees Tatar and Danault in deep on the forecheck and stops himself from following up and instead fades back to the high slot to ensure that if the puck is turned over, he’s covering. On another, he’s given a tough pass along the boards while the Canadiens are killing a penalty and he isn’t able to make a play with it.

What does he do? He doesn’t go racing for a poke check at the point only to have the Ottawa defenceman fake and move around him for a clear look. No, he calmly takes three steps to his left, fills the lane and blocks a shot. The Canadiens were already up 4-0 at that point of the game. That’s the kind of stuff that wins points with the coaching staff. The kind of stuff you can’t teach.

Suzuki is making it really hard for Julien and co. to send him down to the AHL.

Sticking on the theme of youth, 20-year-old defenceman Cale Fleury is making the decision of who to start on the right side of the third Canadiens pairing a real easy one for Julien.

With Noah Juulsen sidelined from the race due to lingering headaches, with Christian Folin and Mike Reilly not really pushing the pace, and with Josh Brook looking like he’ll need a bit more seasoning in the AHL, Fleury is quickly leaping ahead.

“He certainly doesn’t seem intimidated,” Julien said about the 6-foot-1, 201-pound defenceman earlier this week. “He’s thrown some big hits, he’s made some good plays, he’s skating well, moving the puck quick. He’s had two solid games.”

Make it three.

Fleury played 17:16 on Saturday—finishing the night at plus-1 and registering three hits. His play was fluid at both ends, and he brought out a bit of the nasty when he took a first-period penalty driving Colin White to the ice.

Don’t think Julien minded seeing that.

QUICK HITS

• Again, it’s pre-season, but going 3-for-4 on the power play—and the one they didn’t score on was abbreviated—has to be a confidence booster for a Canadiens team that ran its power play at 13.2 per-cent efficiency last season.

• How the Canadiens scored those power-play goals was a good sample of what they’re trying to do there this season. They want to funnel more plays down low and then feed the points. They also want two bodies in front of the net at all times, so they aren’t just putting up one-and-done opportunities.

• Another key on the power play: Winning faceoffs. The Canadiens did a horrible job in those situations last year. In Saturday’s game, Phil Danault won one back clean and charged the net to tip the puck by Joey Daccord for a goal.

• Speaking of Danault, he said his top priority this season was to prove to the coaching staff he’s worthy of more time on the power play. He also said he did a lot of work over the summer on his play along the goal-line. If Saturday’s a sign of what he can bring, the Canadiens will have to strongly consider boosting his already taxing role.

• In the competition to be the 13th or 14th forward on the team, 23-year-old Jake Evans has outperformed Dale Weise, Charles Hudon and Matthew Peca and been just as good as Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins. Not that any of those guys have been particularly bad here — Hudon showed well on Saturday, Cousins has had a lot of jump in his limited pre-season action, and Peca was particularly good on Wednesday night in Bathurst, N.B. — but Evans, who scored his second goal of the pre-season on Saturday, has proven throughout training camp he can be a reliable option at this level. If he doesn’t make the opening night roster, he’ll be a top player in Laval with the AHL’s Rocket, and it wouldn’t be a stretch to suggest he’ll see some action with Montreal at some point this season.

WHAT’S NEXT?

The Canadiens have three games remaining on their pre-season schedule, starting with one against the Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday at the Bell Centre. Let’s see if they can improve their record to 5-0-0.

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