‘A huge learning experience’: Canadiens’ young defence burned by Oilers core

Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl each scored four points apiece while Darnell Nurse got the game-winning goal in an effort that saw the Edmonton Oilers beat the Montreal Canadiens 5-3.

EDMONTON — Every game has been a trial by fire for Montreal’s rookie defencemen, and in this one they got burned. 

That was the danger in it to begin with — facing off against the NHL’s best player in Connor McDavid, against his linemate, Leon Draisaitl, who could take over that title on any night, and against an Edmonton Oilers team that seemingly scores at will when given the opportunity — and Montreal’s inexperienced blueliners were in a giving mood.

They weren’t alone. 

A big factor in this 5-3 loss for the Canadiens was Joel Edmundson’s crosscheck on Zach Hyman that saw him penalized for five minutes and ejected with more than half the game remaining. Edmundson taking a penalty four minutes before that — to give the Oilers their first of three 5-on-3 opportunities on the night — cost the Canadiens a goal and almost all the momentum they gained through a dominant first period.

But before all of that, late in the first period, 21-year-old Arber Xhekaj took his team-leading 13th minor penalty of the season — a needless tripping infraction. He was in the box with Edmundson when Ryan Nugent-Hopkins made both of them pay for their transgressions with Edmonton’s first goal. 

McDavid and Draisaitl took advantage of Montreal’s rash of penalties thereafter to give the Oilers a 3-1 lead. 

And after Evgeni Dadonov narrowed that gap thanks to Joel Armia earning his first point of the season with a nice setup, Xhekaj bounced back with his fourth goal of the season to tie things up 3-3.

He leads all rookie defencemen in goals, which is a big part of the good he’s provided for the Canadiens this season. The penalty he took is the kind of thing he needs to eliminate from his repertoire. 

Live and learn. That’s what this season is about for all of Montreal’s young defencemen. 

And this game provided many lessons.

As veteran defenceman Mike Matheson put it after skating 26:57 to alleviate some of the pressure on them, “I think regardless of win or loss, I think tonight was a huge learning experience, and that’s the way you have to look at it is they were playing huge minutes against two of the best players in the league, and what more can you ask for when you’re trying to get better every day?”

Nothing really. 

The situation was an extremely demanding one for Xhekaj, who played less against Edmonton’s two-headed monster but had to be steady in the five-man rotation in Edmundson’s absence.

It was a massive challenge for 20-year-old Kaiden Guhle, who had to play over seven minutes at 5-on-5 against Draisaitl and McDavid, and he handled it about as well as he could.

But Guhle was far from perfect.

His first NHL game in his hometown got off to a rocky start because, by his own admission, he was a bit too amped up and a bit more nervous than he usually is. He was bailed out by goaltender Jake Allen when he allowed Zach Hyman to break in behind him for a Grade-A scoring chance on his very first shift, and then he settled in.

To see Guhle meet McDavid — who was in full flight and charging in the offensive zone in the eighth minute of play — to make a successful defensive stand against him was part of the stuff he’s been impressing with since he stepped into Montreal’s lineup to start the season.

But Guhle uncharacteristically got caught with fellow rookie blueliner Johnathan Kovacevic mismanaging the clock on Darnell Nurse’s goal with five seconds remaining in the second period, and he’ll have to learn from that.

What you have to like is that both of them bounced back hard in the third period and tried to contribute to what proved to be an unsuccessful comeback bid. Just like Xhekaj bounced back and scored that key goal before Nurse made it 4-3. 

“All of them don’t get down on themselves,” said Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki, who opened the scoring on the power play and was in the box when McDavid made it 3-1. “They come back the next shift, make good plays and don’t lose confidence, and that’s great to see from young guys. And being one, it’s a hard league and when you get down on yourself, it’s hard to come out of. So for them to just keep confident and keep making plays and move on to the next shift (is positive).” 

All of them seemingly having the right perspective — after a game that put them to the test perhaps more than any other one has that they’ve played this season — is also a big plus.

Guhle said he took a lot from this first experience against McDavid and Draisaitl.

The 25-year-old Kovacevic said he’s taken a lot from every experience.

“I’ve learned so much,” he said. “This whole year so far, personally, has been about learning. About learning my game, about learning what’s going to work for me in this league and what’s not going to work. It’s going to be a little bit different than it was for me in the AHL, but I have to find my strengths here, play to those and eliminate some weaknesses and bad plays.”

We asked him what he specifically takes out of this game — and that’s not an easy question to answer immediately after it ends — and he came up with something very introspective.

“It’s technical things,” Kovacevic said. “Moving my feet defensively so I can have a strong gap to start. When I get the puck, moving my feet so I can get a little extra room for myself — a few extra lanes open up when you’re moving because there’s extra space out there. When I’m defending, being composed. Some guys, like Guhles and what not, they’re able to look for big hits and do that often. When I’m playing my game, I have to be a little bit more composed, a little bit more patient when I’m defending and play off of reads and that stuff. 

“There’s a few things, but like I said, I’m learning every game. It’s been 21, 22 games for me so far and I’m trying to learn every game.”

The circumstances were difficult for him, Xhekaj and Guhle before this one even started, and they only got harder after the puck dropped. 

But they’ll be better for having gone through them.

“They have to keep it in perspective, and it’s not easy,” said Matheson. “They’re young and in their first season, but I’m seven years in and I’m taking that game as a learning experience, too. I think everybody has to take it that way.”

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