TORONTO — Here’s a lasting image from Oct. 13, 2021: Jonathan Drouin, with a sparkle in his eye and a smile cracked wide, reaching down for a sweeping fist-pump to celebrate his first goal in his first game back from an indefinite leave of absence taken last April, about to be showered with affection by his teammates for opening the scoring of this Montreal Canadiens season.
This was a special moment. Chill-inducing.
Perhaps the only one the Canadiens experienced in this opening 2-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, but still.
“I wish we had the two points instead,” Drouin said after the game.
That would’ve put it all over the top, but it wasn’t meant to be for the Canadiens, who came out flying with five Grade-A scoring chances in the first three minutes of play and fell flatter and flatter after Drouin swept in a pass from Josh Anderson four minutes and 22 seconds later.
Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said Alexander Romanov’s interference penalty on Michael Bunting, in the ninth minute of play, disrupted his team’s flow. The tying goal from Toronto’s Pierre Engvall on the ensuing power play didn’t help redeem it, and the Canadiens were out of step until late in the second.
But they weren’t out of the game.
It wasn’t until five minutes and 18 seconds were played in the third period that the Canadiens really lost this one. Even if William Nylander had given the Maple Leafs a 2-1 lead four minutes and 10 seconds earlier, the Canadiens barely taking a swing (never mind whiffing) on a 1:44 five-on-three advantage gifted to them by Mitch Marner following Jason Spezza to the box after tripping Chris Wideman 150 feet from his own net proved to be their undoing.
“It was definitely that,” said Ducharme.
It was definitely that, in addition to the lousy power plays the Canadiens had before and after that point of the game.
“They put a lot of pressure,” Ducharme said of Toronto’s penalty kill before adding, “but I didn’t like our pace and our intensity to get out of the pressure there.”
Especially on that five-on-three.
Drouin, tongue in cheek, said, “That wasn’t exactly the nicest five-on-three you’ll see this year.”
A fair joke to crack, with it being as early as can be in a season, but also a reflection of what his mood has been like since he stepped on the ice at the start of training camp three weeks ago.
Drouin’s overall demeanour was one of the biggest positives the Canadiens could take out of their pre-season, and the 26-year-old’s performance in Toronto is the biggest positive they take into Thursday’s game in Buffalo because he can make a big difference for them if plays as well on most nights.
In this one, Drouin took a page out of the Good Things Happen When You Go To The Net With Your Stick On The Ice book to score that goal, he drove his line with Anderson and Christian Dvorak, he had two shots on net and three attempts, he won the only faceoff he took, and he managed to register five hits. He was the best player in bleu, blanc et rouge, and that’s something to carry forward.
This was the start Drouin appeared destined for after stepping away from the game to deal with anxiety and insomnia problems that had plagued him for years. The former third-overall pick was a shell of himself eight months ago—eyes sullen and puffed, smile long gone and buried, mired in a funk that saw him produce just one goal over his last 37 games—but to see him on Wednesday night as Anderson described him earlier in the day (“fast,” “lean,” “motivated,” “excited.”) just felt right.
When Drouin scored, his teammates on the ice pounced on him, and the rest of them on the bench sprung to their feet, put their arms in the air and hooted and hollered over the dim buzz of a mostly-Leaf-favouring crowd of 18,493, which was roughly 1300 short of capacity but a lovely turnout for the first game at Scotiabank Arena allowing more than 550 fans since the pandemic shut down North America in March of 2020.
For Drouin, who had last seen a puck he shot cross the goal line in February of 2021, the feeling was special.
More important was how the Ste. Agathe, Que., native felt before he even stepped on the ice.
“A hundred times better,” Drouin said. “My head’s clearer, I’m more in the game, I’m more focused, I’m more ready when the game’s there. I don’t want to go into details, but definitely, just today, going to the rink was a completely different experience for me than in the last couple of years.”
“To see him come back and score our first goal of the season,” said Ducharme, “I think everyone was happy for him on the bench to see him compensated for the work he put in to prepare for the season.”
The coach and his players were certainly hoping for a better outcome than they achieved.
Outside of the Canadiens’ start to the game, and some strong segments they had at five-on-five, it was a struggle all around. Jake Allen came up with 28 saves but said he should have stopped Nylander’s shot on the winning goal that went over his glove, the penalty kill came up passive on the one from Engvall, and the power play left images the team will review but hopefully forget.
That one of Drouin, though… that would be nice one to put up on a wall somewhere in the Bell Centre.