BROSSARD, Que.–It’s Dec. 29 and the Montreal Canadiens are playing the second half of a back-to-back in Tampa Bay, taking on a Lightning team that has left its competition in the dust through the first three months of the NHL schedule.
The Canadiens have a 5-4 lead nearly halfway through the third period and have matched the Lightning through and through in every department of the game. And then, all of a sudden, the puck siphons back to the point in Montreal’s end where Lightning defenceman Anton Stralman corals it and flicks a harmless-looking wrist-shot at Canadiens goaltender Antti Niemi. The rebound then bounces right to six-foot-one, 210-pound forward Adam Erne, who shifts it from forehand to backhand and ties the game in one swift motion.
As the goal horn reverberates through Amalie Arena, you can see the usually chipper, five-foot-nine, 183-pound Victor Mete slightly sag and skate away as if his lunch money had just been bullied from him. The Canadiens’ defenceman had checked Erne in the corner before the puck found its way to Stralman, he had gotten body position on him in front of the net and managed the physical mismatch as well as he could up until that point, but he hadn’t done enough to tie up the Lightning winger’s stick and ended up coming away from the altercation feeling disappointed in himself.
If you can believe it, this minor mistake is the one that sticks most with Mete when he reviews his season to date. It’s not any of the goals against he was on the ice for when he played his October games as a partner to Jeff Petry, nor is it any of the moments from November that saw his ice-time diminish gradually before he was sent to the AHL’s Laval Rocket for a seven-game stretch. And the 20-year-old sophomore hasn’t lost a wink of sleep over missing the 30 or so chances he’s had to score his first NHL goal this year.
"That doesn’t bother me at all," Mete said after the Canadiens practised on Tuesday.
But this outcome with Erne was exactly what he had worked with Rocket coach Joel Bouchard to expressly avoid.
"He kind of just kept saying to me, "Close quickly on plays, close quickly on plays," drilling it into me," Mete said of his time under Bouchard from Nov. 29-Dec. 17. "I probably heard it about 1,000 times over the weeks I was there. After he showed me what was good and was bad after my first game, it was eye-opening. I wasn’t closing on guys. I wasn’t finishing… even if it’s not a big hit, you still have to take someone out of the play when you engage them. I was more letting my opponent do what he wants to do, allowing him to turn and turn while I contain him instead of making him turn once and then just closing him out."
You could see Mete miss his chance to "finish" Erne along the boards before the play gets back to the point. You could see him fall short in the battle in front in a split second, which is all it takes to cost you a goal against at the NHL level.
But now you see what he’s taken away from it.
"I think the biggest thing is, two things," Canadiens coach Claude Julien started. "Confidence is definitely better, and obviously, his defensive plays—he’s killing plays and defending much better than before."
The evidence of Mete’s improvement is all reviewable on the game tapes, but it can also be found in the numbers (which say he’s only been on the ice for two even-strength goals against in the 11 games since that 6-5 loss in Tampa).
Over that time, the Woodbridge, Ont., native has averaged 19:18 per game, he’s faced off against some of the best lines in the NHL, and he’s come out with a plus-6 rating.
"That first game back (in Colorado on Dec. 19) I played like 12 minutes (it was 12:29). Then it was 16 or so (16:12) in Arizona. And then it was up to 19 (19:37), so my confidence grew. After Claude saw I can be the physical guy and still move the puck quickly, I think he trusts in me now to play more. I’m playing some [penalty kill] too now."
And Mete has really hit his stride as a partner to Shea Weber. The two have played the last 14 games together and have built on the chemistry they established last season.
"If I have a good gap, they’ll dump it in and Weber will go get it and get into that battle that he’ll win 90 per cent of the time," said Mete. "Then I just have to just get open for him on either side, talk to him and give him an outlet. I think that’s kind of worked out best for us. He wins those battles and I’m able to just freewheel it out."
And when the dynamic changes—as it often does with teams often avoiding Weber’s side—Mete has used his superior skating skills to retrieve pucks quickly and get them up the ice by skating them there or passing them.
It’s during that 10 per cent of the time when Weber loses the battle—or when the puck is turned over or it takes a bad bounce and ends up on the opposition’s stick in the Canadiens’ zone—that we’ve seen Mete succeed with what he struggled most with for parts of last season and the early portion of this one.
"I’ve noticed a big difference," said Canadiens defenceman Karl Alzner, who was with the team from last season through the beginning of this season and in Laval when Mete was sent there in November. "He’s only 20. It’s extremely hard if you don’t have that brute strength. Most 20-year-olds don’t, but being smart, crafty and positionally good can help you get away with that. He’s done a really good job of that lately, winning a lot of those battles with good stick play and positioning. That’s going to be important for him moving forward."
For Mete, who worked extremely hard on his lower body and his explosiveness starting last April but was limited by a broken finger that didn’t allow him to focus hard on his upper body until July, there are aspects of the physical game that will always challenge him. But he’s committed to overcoming that in the way Alzner described, and also by pushing back.
"I’ve been trying to play more aggressively," he said. "I know the boys are actually keeping track of my hits. I was on a hit streak for a couple of games and they were giving me the gears. I’ll say, ‘I had a huge hit tonight, boys,’ and then they’ll go and look and say, ‘Oh yeah! You had one hit!’"
If it was the one that stopped a situation from developing like the one he found himself in with Erne, Mete will be that much happier he made it.