CALGARY — Sean Monahan pulled the opening faceoff away from Nazem Kadri, curled back to free himself up for a pass from Kaiden Guhle, took the puck hard off his stick and chipped it into the offensive zone.
Then Monahan raced by Rasmus Andersson and barreled his way towards Jacob Markstrom to force the turnover Juraj Slafkovsky took advantage of to give the Montreal Canadiens their quickest lead in a hockey game since Brian Gionta scored 11 seconds into a game against the New Jersey Devils in 2010.
The speed with which Monahan pulled this off was shocking, especially considering he arrived at Scotiabank Saddledome with a walking boot on his right foot three hours earlier. You’d have never known he was injured to the extent he was had the cameras not been centred on him ahead of his first contest against his former team.
It was fitting, really. Monahan’s legacy — built over nine seasons in Calgary after he was made the sixth overall pick in the 2013 NHL Draft by the Flames — may have been founded on his offensive ability, but it was cemented on his willingness to grit his way through the pain and do whatever he could to help his team without anyone really knowing to what extent he was suffering.
Over the past two seasons, Monahan couldn’t do much. He didn’t play more than a handful of games without suffering through the agony of torn labrums in his hips —injuries Milan Lucic referred to as “serious” on Thursday morning and ones we think would more accurately be described as debilitating.
“It was tough to lay down,” Monahan recalled, “tough to walk.”
The foot injury that kept him out of Canadiens practice Monday and Wednesday, and limited him to an abbreviated skate Thursday morning, paled in comparison, and his presence in the lineup was never in doubt. Team trainers would’ve had to have tied Monahan to his bed to keep him from limping into this arena and then bursting down centre ice to help his team get on the board 13 seconds in.
“It was a special night, one I’m going to remember,” Monahan said after he factored into that first goal and the one Cole Caufield scored on a third-period power play to secure this 2-1 win. “I don’t think I would’ve missed this one for the world.”
Everyone knew what this meant to him.
“I spent almost half my life here,” the 28-year-old said earlier on Thursday. “The relationships you build with teammates, within the organization and in the community, those are memories and things that I’ll never forget…”
The tribute Monahan received moments after helping Slafkovsky open the scoring will be in his thoughts forever.
There Monahan stood by the Canadiens bench, staring up at the video the Flames displayed during a TV timeout, saluting the fans who gave him a standing ovation.
Monahan said earlier in the day he wanted to be remembered in Calgary “as a team guy, always,” and you could feel he was being received as warmly by Flames fans for that exact reason.
They knew he sacrificed over and over again for their team, playing through things that left him shell of the player they first fell in love with, and they were sad to see him go in a salary dump — along with a first-round pick — in the trade to the Canadiens over the summer.
“The fans were always awesome to me,” Monahan said of the Flames faithful.
And now it’s a love-in with Canadiens fans, too.
They’ve appreciated the details in his game, his versatility at both ends of the ice, and the 16 points he’s posted through 23 games in their team’s uniform.
The Canadiens — especially the young ones — are fond of all that, too.
But their appreciation for the warrior who ends up as his team’s best skater in the game, in between limping in and out of the rink, is something else.
“He’s one tough bastard, let’s put it that way,” said Jake Allen, who made 45 saves and was Montreal’s best player.
Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis said Monahan’s young teammates should take from his courage that “this league is hard, and you need special people doing special things (to play) a long time…”
He could ask Monahan to do less of them in this department, to perhaps extend his career by allowing himself to heal rather than constantly playing hurt.
But St. Louis would be asking Monahan to be something he isn’t, and he doesn’t appear inclined to do that.
“Sometimes you have to protect the player from the player because they’re competitors and they want to be out there, and it’s hard,” he said earlier in the day. “To have a long career, you’re not going to play at 100 per cent. You’re going to have to play with bumps and bruises, and obviously Mony’s used to that.”
It’s been Monahan’s calling card for as long as he’s laced up his skates.
When we asked him earlier in the day how he’d go about shifting to self-preservation, he said, “I don’t even know.”
“I think it’s just how I was raised,” Monahan continued. “I’ve always put the team first, and that’s something I’ll always do.”
That’s what he did on Thursday night. It’s what he was celebrated for by Flames fans during the game, and what he was lauded for by Canadiens players after it.
It’s not going to change.
As Monahan said to close his media availability after the game, he’s not considering taking a game or two off now that this special night has passed.
“Maybe a few practices,” Monahan said.
But he won’t turn away from the opportunity to help the Canadiens win as they continue this road trip through Western Canada and Seattle.