They were the most revealing moments of this Canadiens season, with Phillip Danault receiving treatment in the locker room while the other Montreal centres were getting worked on by the Calgary Flames.
The 28-year-old pivot felt something go on his fifth shift of the first period, with 12:40 remaining, and he skated off the ice and headed straight for the locker room, leaving Nick Suzuki, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and winger-turned-centre Paul Byron to do all the work up the middle for the Canadiens while rookie centre Jake Evans looked on from the press box as the Flames built a snow bank in front of Carey Price and took a 2-0 lead to first intermission.
The takeaway was obvious — that Danault’s importance to the team was largely undersold in the aftermath of his off-season comments about being unwilling to just lay down and accept a reduced role, and that his slow start and his failure to produce a goal until Game 25 only further masked just how valuable he truly was to Montreal’s success.
Because Danault knew long ago what Canadiens fans are discovering right now: That even though Kotkaniemi and Suzuki have proven they can handle more responsibility, it would be too much to ask of players so young to carry the Canadiens on a nightly basis while playing the most challenging position. Especially in this all-Canadian North Division, which features some of the best centres and defencemen in the NHL.
And what happened to Kotkaniemi (20) and Suzuki (21) in Saturday’s 3-1 loss to the Flames was just one of many lessons they’ll be served up on their way to becoming the players they’re expected to be.
These are lessons 26-year-old Sean Monahan learned well before he scored the first two goals of this one.
In Edmonton, two of the best players in the world — 24-year-old Connor McDavid and 25-year-old Leon Draisaitl — may have produced at exceptional levels, but they still went through the classic growing pains early on and have since emerged with a better understanding of what it takes to do the job at both ends of the ice night in, night out. And look at who 23-year-old Auston Matthews is now versus who he was a year ago, when he still had under 300 games of NHL experience under his belt.
“It’s the NHL,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “It’s the best league in the world and there’s nothing easy.”
Not the matchups, not the travel, and certainly not the unrelenting schedule in this shortened season, which appears to have caught up to Kotkaniemi, Suzuki and the rest of the Canadiens at a time when they really need to win games to maintain their grip on a playoff spot.
It’s why Ducharme kept them away from the rink on Saturday morning after they were off from practice Friday. They had no energy in Thursday’s loss to Calgary, which came 22 hours after their dominant win over the Canucks in Vancouver, and he wanted to ensure they’d have what they needed for this all-important rubber match—with the Flames just four points behind in the standings.
“I liked our energy before the game,” Ducharme said after the Flames cut their deficit to two points. “But the game started and we weren’t moving our feet and we couldn’t execute because of it.”
The coach said there was no excuse for that.
But there was a reason. Because two of the players who can initiate that process for the Canadiens are Kotkaniemi and Suzuki, just by nature of where they line up and how much they must be depended on, and both of them were going through a growing-pains kind of night.
Even from the start, if you watched them closely away from the puck, they struggled to get to those key areas of the ice to provide a passing option for the defence or support the rush up the ice. And that issue was exacerbated when Danault left the game.
It persisted through his first shifts back in the second period, when he could barely move or dig in for faceoffs.
“He’s been a big part of this team for a while, and he’s good in the faceoff circle and he’s responsible defensively,” said Jeff Petry, whose 11th goal of the season stood as Montreal’s only one in the game. “So when a guy like that leaves for a bit of time, it’s definitely a hole that’s tough to fill.”
It was nearly impossible with Evans not dressed. Byron played just over 10 minutes at the position, Jonathan Drouin played a few shifts there, and it was particularly challenging with Kotkaniemi and Suzuki not quite on point.
And don’t get us wrong, Kotkaniemi and Suzuki both got better as the game wore on — they even both came out on the winning side of the ledger on faceoffs.
But if Kotkaniemi and Suzuki combined for just one shot attempt between them despite each of them playing roughly 19 minutes — Suzuki would’ve played more if he hadn’t been forced away for 10 minutes of the third period to go through concussion protocol following a collision with teammate Corey Perry — it wasn’t because this was one of their better nights in the NHL.
This was one of those nights both players knew they’d be facing prior to taking on elevated roles with the team this season. It was one of those nights they had to experience in order to continue progressing.
“That’s what I want,” said Suzuki. “I want to be a good player in this league that’s going up against tough matchups—other teams’ top lines, other teams’ top D pairs. That’s the player I want to be and I think it’s been good for me.”
But he also said he needs to rediscover the confidence with which he started the season, because he’s been humbled a few times since—just as Kotkaniemi has—and he’s now gone four straight games without a point.
Suzuki’s got 17 in 27 games, which is still good production for his first full season as a top centre. And Kotkaniemi has fared reasonably well, too, putting up 14 points while playing mostly third-line minutes.
But the game is about more than just points, and both players need Danault to insulate them as they navigate the growth process in all other areas.
Ducharme said whatever was ailing Danault was nothing too serious, even if it prevented him from playing anywhere near his ability for most of Saturday’s game. There were some camera shots at the beginning of the second period that showed the athletic therapist massaging his back on the bench, and the Canadiens will have to hope that, with some rest and more treatment, he’ll be okay to play in Winnipeg on Monday.
Because the Canadiens are taking on a Jets team that pulled to within four points of the division lead with a win over the Toronto Maple Leafs Saturday — a Jets team with a centre line of Mark Scheifele, Paul Stastny, Adam Lowry and Nate Thompson — and it isn’t going to get any easier for their young centremen against them.