Part of the reason why the Montreal Canadiens have managed to play into the summer is the life those players have brought to the lineup, and the way they’ve been able to grow through challenges during this extended playoff run.
The Stanley Cup Final arrived with the biggest challenge yet: A regular matchup with the Nikita Kucherov-Brayden Point-Ondrej Palat line, at least for the games here at Amalie Arena where Lightning head coach Jon Cooper controls last change.
It didn’t go well for Montreal in Game 1, with the Point line burying three goals at 5-on-5 on the way to a 5-1 victory. But that does not come with any guarantee the result will be repeated in Game 2 on Wednesday night -- especially with a 21-year-old in Suzuki and 20-year-old in Caufield who have shown themselves to be such intelligent players and quick studies.
“I think they’re growing every day,” said assistant coach Luke Richardson. “So today’s another day to grow and tomorrow’s another day to show that growth in your game. You have to implement things that you learn every day and put it into your game that grow and get better and it has to happen fast, especially in the Final.
“I expect everybody to be better, especially younger guys that I think they’re going to enjoy it.”
Implied in that statement is the fact Suzuki, Caufield and Tyler Toffoli are likely to see more head-to-head minutes with Point. There’s only so much Richardson can do to get away from that matchup on the road and he didn’t sound inclined to start shaking up his lines or contemplating dramatic changes.
Instead he seems to have faith they’ll find their own way, limiting turnovers and pushing the pace offensively. They’ve done it before. And the Stanley Cup Final stage should be a bit more comfortable the second time around.
Suzuki pointed to the fact they had moments in Game 1 where they hemmed the Lightning in their own zone, and were undone by some tough bounces. It was not offered as an excuse for the mistakes made, but he saw it as evidence that they can push back against Tampa’s stars.
He acknowledged that “tomorrow's going to be a big one for confidence.”
“Puck management is key. Had a few turnovers. Me personally, I had two,” Suzuki said. “Just have to keep those down, be smart with the puck. I think once we get in the offensive zone, we can outwork them there. It's just going to be key.
“It looks like they want to play against us the whole time, so we have to do a better job."
Where the Canadiens have excelled during this playoff run is in limiting their opponent’s top offensive stars, led by the Phillip Danault line. But they’ve been consistently stingy no matter who is on the ice.
And just like in last summer’s NHL bubble, when Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi rose to the occasion, they’ve been rewarded for placing faith in their youth. Kotkaniemi and Caufield were both scratched at the beginning of a first-round series with Toronto and helped propel the comeback that followed after they got the chance to play.
“I thought you could feel a little bit of a shift in their team when Kotkaniemi and Caufield came into the lineup for them,” said Leafs coach Sheldon Keefe, following Game 7 of that series. “You could just sense things shifted a little bit in terms of their depth and their speed and skill and those kind of things that changed the dynamic of the series a little bit, even though it took time for that traction.”
Here we are a few weeks later and they’re still making a big impact.
They haven’t looked back.
So while it might not seem ideal to have players learning on the fly in a high-leverage matchup, it’s part of the story about why Montreal even got here in the first place. They’ve continually answered the bell against tough opponents during this run and the defending champion Lightning are the best yet.
“They're definitely as advertised,” Suzuki said. “They're a good team, move the puck real well, skate real well. I think we just got a taste of what they bring to the table and we just have to match that intensity, match their compete and I think we can definitely play with these guys.”
The best thing about a playoff series is that the truth today is not necessarily the truth tomorrow. Things change as the games keep coming.
And while Game 1 of this Stanley Cup Final won’t be a memorable one for the youngest Canadiens, they’ve still got a big chance to change the story.
“They’ll have one more day of an experience with being in the Final, so that’ll help,” Richardson said. “And they’re great players. They’re going to give us a good push tomorrow night to get us even in the series.”