There are two ways of looking at this first opportunity Alexander Romanov had to stake his claim as a viable partner for Shea Weber in Ben Chiarot’s absence.
First, it would be foolish to judge the 21-year-old on just this one performance, but especially with it taking place less than 24 hours after he and his Montreal Canadiens teammates throttled the Vancouver Canucks, and only 13 hours after they closed the doors to their hotel rooms and unpacked their bags in Calgary. Thursday’s game was all but guaranteed to be a slog against a Flames team that was off since Sunday—a Flames team desperate to reverse a skid and win for new/old coach Darryl Sutter in his first game back behind their bench—and it proved to be one from the second the puck dropped to the second Jacob Markstrom lifted his arms from his crease and awaited the celebratory head bumps from his teammates.
“It wasn’t a particularly strong game for anyone tonight,” Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said after his team lost 2-1 and generated just 18 shots on net, and he was understating of it.
But something else the coach said gave us the second way to look at Romanov’s performance, a perfect lens through which to look at the young Russian’s part in the loss. Because when Ducharme was asked if this was a throwaway given the circumstances of playing back-to-back against such a rested and motivated opponent, he responded, “There’s always something to take from it,” and that applied to Romanov more than anyone else in Montreal’s lineup.
The 17 minutes and change Romanov played offered him a lesson that will only reinforce the message that’s been given to him all season—that his talent and energy can take him as far as he wants it to, but it will shine through most when he plays the game as simply as possible. He’s a receptive kid, but the words don’t serve it up quite like the experience does.
Take it from Jake Allen, Montreal’s backup goaltender who came in fresh off the bench and did exactly what the Canadiens needed him to do.
The 30-year-old, leaning on nearly 300 games of NHL regular-season experience, was prepared.
“As a goalie, my objective tonight was to come in and get as many whistles as possible,” he said after making 27 saves and giving the Canadiens a chance to win a game they didn’t deserve. “That was my No. 1 goal for the team. And I thought I did a pretty good job of that in the second period. It’s just to slow the game down. I think that’s the experience you go through. Our young guys will understand that it’s puck management, taking whistles when you need to, maybe taking an icing if you have to, just find ways to simplify the game and make it easier on yourself and to let your body do its work.”
It would be understandable if this big opportunity clouded Romanov in that process. Maybe he had all the intentions of playing as Allen suggested to begin with, but this was his first chance to move from the third pair to the first pair and prove he’s worthy of sticking there, to prove to Ducharme he was ready for it after the coach had said several times over the past two weeks that he didn’t wish to expose the player too much in his first season.
That Romanov was being given the first crack at the role despite Victor Mete entering the lineup as a player who’s played and succeeded as Weber’s partner in the past only ratcheted up the pressure.
That Romanov found out at noon (local time) may have offered him more than enough time for him to wrap his head around the assignment, but it was also possibly too much time to be thinking about it.
Jonathan Drouin, 25, would know a thing or two about that. He remembers what it was like to be a highly touted prospect anticipating his first crack at a primary role.
The former third-overall pick acknowledged it’s only natural to try to do too much to rise to the occasion.
“As a young guy, when you’re playing with top players, sometimes it can be overwhelming,” Drouin said just before shielding Romanov from some criticism by insinuating the team looked like it forgot to take its skate guards off for this one.
“We weren’t breaking out well, we weren’t making good plays, it’s not only him,” Drouin said. “It’s really a team effort tonight where we didn’t really create anything or have our legs or really have anything going for us.”
Josh Anderson made a mistake at the offensive blue line that set off a chain of others from the Canadiens and gave Calgary’s Josh Leivo the go-ahead goal at 1:52 of the second period. Weber made another mistake 11 minutes later, forcing a breakout pass to Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who was one of three Canadiens forwards on the ice not moving or supporting the play well enough to give Weber a good option.
Leivo scored again and that was all she wrote, despite a late goal for Corey Perry that gave the Canadiens a rescue breath.
But they weren’t able to come to. Montreal got a power play with just over six minutes to play and couldn’t find a way to generate a zone entry, let alone a quality scoring chance.
The game essentially ended with Paul Byron’s slashing penalty with 2:36 remaining, and it started just as sloppily. Especially those early shifts, where Romanov, who somehow wasn’t credited with a single giveaway in the game—this is by far the least accurately kept stat in hockey—couldn’t complete a pass and forced several of them onto Calgary sticks.
Looking at some of the incredible ones Romanov’s already made over his brief career, it was a clear sign it was going to be an off game.
But the next one, which will be Montreal’s fourth in six nights, doesn’t have to be. And whether or not Romanov plays it next to Weber or not, he needs to heed the lesson he was taught in this game.
“It’s a lot of tired legs coming in the rest of the season here,” Allen said. “There’s going to be a lot of games and we’ve got to find a way to use them the right way.”
That’s true for everyone on the Canadiens, but it’s especially true for Romanov as Chiarot takes the next several weeks to recover. The opportunity is still there for him to prove he can take on more.
The Muscovite can also take comfort in Ducharme not reading too deeply into his performance in this one game.
“The energy wasn’t at its highest, so I think collectively it was harder, and we made many mental errors,” the coach said. “It was hard to assess them individually, because we were off as a group. It was the same from one end of the lineup to the other.”