Canadiens' Owen Beck an unexpected standout in preseason competition vs. Devils

Tomas Tatar and Graeme Clarke both scored while MacKenzie Blackwood made 15 saves to help the New Jersey Devils defeat the Montreal Canadiens 2-1.

MONTREAL — It’s late in the first preseason game of the year when Owen Beck sees defenceman Jordan Harris step out to front his man along the boards.

The 33rd-overall pick in the 2022 Draft can see Harris is a step late to the battle and instead of turning up ice to go on offence, he steps into Harris’ spot on defence and stays with his man in front of the Canadiens’ net. He’s scanning, swiveling his head from the battle ensuing between Harris and New Jersey Devils forward Jesper Boqvist to the one he’s personally engaged in, and he’s waiting for his opportunity to transition. 

Right as Harris pokes the puck off Boqvist’s stick, Beck jumps up to support the play up-ice, which is being guided by linemates Cole Caufield and Mike Hoffman. 

As he catches up in front of New Jersey’s net, the puck is shot from the point and he tips it to Devils goaltender Nico Daws, creating a Grade-A scoring chance for Caufield on the rebound. 

Then Beck hustles off the ice for a line change.

These are the fine details, but the fine details are what Owen Beck’s game is made of. They carried him through an impressive showing at the Canadiens' rookie camp, they helped him establish a true presence in the first week of main camp, and they propelled him to the team’s first line — in captain Nick Suzuki’s absence — for this preseason opener.

We noticed them all on Monday night.

So did Martin St. Louis, who was asked which young player stood out most to him out of 2022 first-overall pick Juraj Slafkovsky, 2022 first-rounder Filip Mesar and young defencemen Kaiden Guhle, Jordan Harris, Justin Barron. The Canadiens head coach said it was Beck.

“I find Beck played a really good game for a youngster,” St. Louis started. “He was 59 per cent in faceoffs; it was impressive, and it’s always good to start with the puck."

“He plays a very mature game,” the coach added. “Doesn’t play like an 18-year-old. He was in tonight with Cole and Hoff, with Suzy being hurt right now. It’s an opportunity for him, and he took advantage of it.”

Beck, who’s expected to go back to Mississauga for his second season with the OHL’s Steelheads, played 16 shifts and skated 17:22 in his first-ever NHL preseason game. He had three shots on net, rang a blistering one off the bar for what was one of Montreal’s best scoring chances of this 2-1 loss and — yes, indeed — won 10 of 17 faceoffs.

After the game, the Port Hope, Ont. native was in a pretty good mood.

“I think there was a bit of an adjustment period for me,” Beck said, “but I don’t think it took too long for me to start playing my game again.”

When asked where his confidence level was at following the experience, he said “It’s up there,” before spitting out, “You can’t get too high or too low.”

“It’s amazing having that kind of trust from an NHL coach and being on the ice with Caufield and Hoffman — two very good NHL players,” Beck continued. “Getting that opportunity raises the confidence a little bit.”

It should. 

The 6-foot, 185-pound centre may not be in Montreal when camp breaks, but if he continues to take care of all those little details, he’ll be an NHLer before long.

Beck might not have to wait much longer for an entry-level contract, either.

Slafkovsky more comfortable than he looked

Before everyone rushes to judgment on the 6-foot-4, 238-pound Slovakian, keep in mind that the most important thing that happened for him on this night was that he got this game under his belt. 

Yes, Slafkovsky was ordinary. His first shot on net of the game came on his last shift, and there were times when he appeared out of his element. 

But, by his own admission, the build up to this moment was almost too much for him to find the focus he would've liked to had.

“I was waiting on that (game) basically since the draft,” Slafkovsky said. “Seeing the pace of the game and the compete level, now I know and I can (learn) from that and be better next game.”

He may have looked slightly uncomfortable from afar, but was less so from up close, according to St. Louis.

“I thought he was fine,” the coach said. “I thought he had good jump. Looked like he was having fun out there. He was asking questions. When we took the too-many-men (penalty in the second period), he looked at me and said, ‘Should I go serve it?’ And I’m like, ‘Why not?’”

Slafkovsky was in the penalty box once more for a goaltender interference penalty but played 16:21 on the ice and recorded two shot attempts, two hits and one takeaway. 

He was far from the best player out there — or even the best rookie — and there were probably many people who were disappointed by not seeing him hit the net or the scoresheet.

But now it’s about how Slafkovsky responds since he knows much more about what to expect. 

He said things moved much faster than he thought they would, and he knows they’ll move exponentially faster come regular season. It’ll be interesting to see how he addresses the professional pace in his next preseason game.

Preseason matters for the veterans

It at least matters to Jake Allen, who will be Montreal’s starting goaltender this season.

The 32-year-old asked to start this game. He saved all 18 shots he faced, was the Canadiens’ best player before giving way to Cayden Primeau with a little more than half the game remaining, and was more than happy to have gotten in the work.

“I want to play as much as I can,” Allen said. “As I’ve gotten older, I understand every minute is crucial. I want to get in the net as much as I can. So, hopefully coming into this weekend we’ll get full games in and get the rhythm back.”

We got the sense that if St. Louis could've, he'd have played veteran defenceman Mike Matheson for the whole game. 

Instead, the coach settled for giving Matheson 25:35, playing him in all situations and relying on him in all the key moments.

“His skating is just so elite, and he’s very engaged,” St. Louis said of the 28-year-old who came over in the trade that sent Jeff Petry to the Pittsburgh Penguins this past summer.

“He directs traffic. He’s a leader on the ice. He’s great. I looked at the game sheet and thought, ‘Gosh, for a preseason game, maybe I played him too much. But (Damon) Severson on the other side played 25 minutes, too, so I’m like, ‘Alright, I’m not crazy.’”

Matheson doesn’t think so either. 

Similar to how it is for Allen, Matheson understands these are vital reps for him to get in before taking on a massive role with the Canadiens this season.

“I think it does matter a lot, actually,” Matheson said of the preseason.

“It’s your opportunity to really get into it so you hit the ground running when the season starts. I thought it was good start for me, personally. Still a lot of things that I could’ve done better and that’s going to be the case throughout the whole season. Good start, but definitely hope to keep building on it.”

If Matheson does, it’ll bode well for the Canadiens.

He was dominant in this game — in all three zones — and if he can be better, that’s good news for this team.

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