MONTREAL — Wednesday’s game isn’t just an important one in the standings, it’s one that will see Joel Armia return to the Montreal Canadiens lineup for the first time since testing positive for the British variant of COVID-19.
Armia, who practised alongside Nick Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli at Montreal’s morning skate, will return against the Calgary Flames at the Bell Centre. Armia said he suffered body aches for the first four or five days of his two-week quarantine but otherwise felt well.
The 27-year-old, who has five goals and 10 points in 24 games, returned to the ice earlier this week, rejuvenated and excited to be back doing what he loves most.
“I’m really happy,” he said after Wednesday’s skate. “First day I came to the rink I think I had the smile on my face the whole day. So, it’s really good to be back.”
Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme is making Jake Evans a healthy scratch and said he feels Armia can help solidify his top-nine forward group with his skill and his 6-foot-3 frame.
“He’s a player we believe in a lot,” Ducharme said, “and we’re happy to see him back with us.”
Ben Chiarot, who suffered a fracture in his right hand on Mar. 10, was also present at the morning skate, but it’s not expected he’ll be available for this game against the Flames. Neither will Carey Price, who’s still day-to-day with a lower-body injury.
The Flames are coming off a 3-2 overtime win over the Toronto Maple Leafs on Tuesday. It put them six points back of the Canadiens, who reside in the fourth and final playoff spot in the North Division and still possess three games in hand on the Flames.
Montreal is 1-3 against Calgary after having beaten the Flames in one of two games at the Bell Centre before losing the last two at the Saddledome.
“We can’t get away from our way of playing,” said Ducharme of Wednesday’s game, which will be the first of five to finish the season-series between these teams.
“We have to just be better, and that’s the most important thing. I think when were last in Calgary, the first game was the second game of a back-to-back after traveling a lot. It wasn’t an easy game to play. But the second game we had a bad game.
“We want to be at our best. When we’re at our best, we’re dynamic, we’re fast, we’re intense, we’re connected, so that’s what we’re concentrating on and that’s what we want to do against every team, including the Flames.”
For Ducharme’s counterpart, Darryl Sutter, the key for the Flames is sticking to their system to beat the Canadiens.
“You win by having good structure,” he said at noon. “You don’t win by anything else. So we’ll try to play with good structure tonight and try to use everybody and hopefully get a really good effort out of our group.”
As for the specific challenge against the Canadiens, Sutter said, “They’re a real veteran team.”
“A lot of savvy and experience, and that in itself is a challenge for us,” Sutter added. “So, that’s what we’ll try and handle tonight.”
Jon Merrill brings style off the ice, versatility on it
At the risk of judging a book by its cover, I couldn’t help but do exactly that searching Jon Merrill’s name after he was traded from the Detroit Red Wings to the Canadiens for a 2021 fifth-round pick and prospect Hayden Verbeek.
Before I got to his stat-line, I saw this and thought, “This guy is a hockey player.”
My second thought was, “He’ll fit right in.”
It’s why the first question I asked Merrill, as he participated in Tuesday’s zoom from his hotel quarantine in Edmonton (where the Canadiens will be when he’s eligible to play), was about what he feels his hair says about his personality.
“It's definitely a lifestyle,” the 29-year-old defenceman responded. “You've got to be able to back it up when you wear a haircut like this. I'm definitely just a free spirit and an easy-going guy. It's easy to manage, too. You just have to run your fingers through the top and let the back do what it wants to do, and it looks good that way. It's definitely something that I've become accustomed to and I don't plan on changing it anytime soon."
Good, these are the words of a confident person, and the idea that he’s an easy-going one was only reinforced when he talked about his expectations for how the Canadiens might use him.
"I'm open to playing with anyone,” Merrill said. “They're all great players. Everybody's in the NHL for a reason, so I'm happy to be playing with anybody. I'm not too picky.”
"I've been put in all kinds of different situations throughout my career, from playing over 20 minutes to only playing 13-15, so I've done a little bit of everything,” he added. “I've played the left, played the right, power play and penalty kill. I'll help this club win in any way I can. I'll do whatever it takes."
That’s what you want from someone coming in at this stage of the season — that kind of attitude, but also that type of versatility.
The value of adding depth at the deadline is for this exact purpose. A player who can step right onto your third pair obviously helps, and Merrill will be able to do just that. He’ll provide reliability next to rookie Alex Romanov and enable Ducharme to spread the minutes a bit more evenly, but he’s also capable of moving up the lineup if the injuries start to pile up.
Now, I didn’t know everything there was to know about Merrill, outside of watching him play a few games with the Vegas Golden Knights both in their run to the Stanley Cup Final three years ago and also in last year’s playoffs. I didn’t see much of him in his four years with the New Jersey Devils from 2013-17, and I’ve only watched two Red Wings games this season. It’s part of the reason I went searching for him online.
It’s also a reason I reached out to a pro scout who covers that area and has watched a ton of Merrill’s games this season.
“To start with, being a plus-2 while averaging close to 20 minutes a game and playing mostly on the right side as a lefty for these Detroit Red Wings does say something,” the scout said. “I know plus-minus can sometimes be not very representative, but in this case it is. He’s a steady, defence-first type. He can skate, he can hit, he’ll give you good minutes and be able to move up and down depending on what you need.
“There’s nothing flashy there, but, for a guy who rarely starts shifts in the offensive zone, he might have a bit more offence than his stats suggest. He’s produced a bit in the past and he’s pretty good at getting his shots through to the net.”
Merrill’s obviously not great at scoring on them, as a career 3.5 per cent shooter who only has 12 goals in 392 NHL games.
But he’s mitigated that with everything else he brings to the table. If he hadn’t, he wouldn’t have averaged over 17:30 per game with all three teams he played with prior to joining the Canadiens.
They were playing Victor Mete 13:51 a night because he wasn’t mitigating his defensive limitations with the offence his skill set should be able to help manufacture. That Mete wasn’t on the power play or the penalty kill certainly hurt that number.
Merrill doesn’t have his speed or his puck-moving ability, but he can provide what the Canadiens are looking for on their third pair and on the penalty kill. He can also boost the competition.
And if anyone needs a tip on how to rock and completely own one of the best mullets seen in 30 year, the Oklahoma native’s also got that covered.
Brett Kulak under the gun, Romanov on alert
Naturally, Merrill’s arrival in addition to Erik Gustafsson’s from the Philadelphia Flyers puts Brett Kulak in a fight to keep his spot in the lineup.
He’s had a good season, filled in admirably for Ben Chiarot in his absence, but got a very limited look on the right side earlier this season - and he’s also been used very sparingly on special teams.
Chiarot is on the mend from a broken hand suffered on Mar. 10. It is looking like he’ll be back in action over the weekend, and Merrill and Gustafsson will emerge from quarantine next week. That all puts a lot of pressure on Kulak.
But that’s the kind of situation the 27-year-old has dealt with throughout his 249-game NHL career. What he’s learned is just to focus on what he brings to the table instead of trying to out-do what those competing for his job will bring.
It wasn’t like that when he was a young player with the Flames, or even last season in Montreal.
“I’d almost be looking to see what my competition was doing as opposed to just focusing on myself,” said Kulak on Tuesday. “Nowadays, I can just focus on my own game way better, and I know what I need to be doing to be successful and I just kinda stay on my own page a little better and that focus helps me be at my best for the team.”
It is important Kulak not get discouraged by being displaced at some point over the remaining 17 games. So much can change between now and when the playoffs begin, and anything can happen once they do. He has to know by now he can be a valuable piece when relied upon.
Meanwhile, we’ll see how 21-year-old Romanov reacts to the competition for jobs ramping up. The hope is that it brings him to an entirely different level, but he’s going to have to battle every night with Kulak, Merrill and Gustafsson, who are all capable of stepping in and contributing.
Steeper hill to climb for Gustafsson
If the 29-year-old was scratched nine of the last 10 games by the Philadelphia Flyers before the Canadiens traded a seventh-round pick to acquire him, it’s not because he was playing great hockey.
Gustafsson knows he’s got to prove himself, and he might have to wait (beyond the seven days he’ll be in quarantine) to do it.
“It’s always good to have competition on the team,” the Swede said in an introductory Zoom conference Wednesday. “I’ve been watching them since I got traded and always had my eye on them, too. They’re playing really well right now and it’s a good D-core in Montreal right now. It’s going to be fun to be a part of that, and I guess I’m going to take it step by step here and see how it goes. But I’m really happy to be part of this organization.”
On a team full of big, physical, in-your-face defencemen, Gustafsson’s style provides contrast. He doesn’t excel in suppressing the rush or defending the front of the net, but he could complement one of the many Canadiens who do those things well while also providing an offensive boost.
Gustafsson may be three seasons removed from a 15-goal, 60-point output in 79 games with the Chicago Blackhawks, but he’s still produced 13 goals and 68 points in the 156 games since—including a goal and 10 points in 24 games with a Flyers team that didn’t see a need for him with Shayne Gostisbehere dressing ahead of him on the left side this season.
“It didn’t work out for me in that team,” Gustafsson said. “I can come back to that guy I was, and I think in Montreal I can be that guy.”