A lot of things run through my mind, aside from the obvious — that the 32-year-old was in the process of scoring what was unquestionably the biggest goal of his career, and certainly the most beautiful one. I think about how it was fitting it would come shorthanded, with Byron using his speed and scorer’s touch in the same way that initially made him so valuable to the Canadiens when they claimed him off waivers from the Calgary Flames in 2015. I think about how he was talking earlier in the week about third- and fourth-line players who often make the difference in games like these, and how he grew up as an Anaheim Ducks fan who marvelled at how the line of Samuel Pahlsson, Rob Niedermayer and Travis Moen was instrumental in the 2007 Stanley Cup win and in setting the template for him, Artturi Lehkonen and Jake Evans to follow as a shutdown trio.
But I mostly think about what happened with Byron over the last year and change, about how his determination to beat Rasmus Sandin to that loose puck and stick with the play even as he was dragged down to the ice was symbolic of the fact that he hasn’t allowed circumstances to defeat him.
This guy was virtually unrecognizable to start the 2019-20 season. And right as he appeared ready to emerge from his slump, he suffered a knee injury that knocked him out for three months.
Byron returned in February of 2020 and finished strong before proving quite effective against the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers in the bubble.
But with the Canadiens adding depth on the wings and forcing their way up against the salary cap with the various other acquisitions they made over the off-season, Byron’s role was put in jeopardy. He was waived first on Valentine’s Day, waived again on Mar. 16 and finally on Apr. 9 — a cap casualty making $3.4 million for this season and each of the next two, a guy who would easily pass through.
“The business side of hockey is what it is sometimes,” said Byron , “I knew it was never personal.”
But that doesn’t mean it didn’t hurt. Especially for a player who’s as proud to be a Canadien as anyone you’ll ever meet, a player who earned the ‘A’ he wears on his jersey by playing with his heart on his sleeve at all times.
Byron never showed it bothered him, though.
“I know the coach and the GM still like me, still want me on the team,” he said. “You don’t see a guy put on waivers and then later that day is playing in the lineup, starting overtime against some great hockey players. So, I always knew it was never personal, and I just tried to work hard every day and be the best player I can, and that’s all I could really do.”
It’s what Byron has always done.
He pushed through more adversity late in the season after suffering a lower-body injury on Apr. 23, and he fought his way back to a point where he could bear the pain to play in the most pivotal games — the final two against the Edmonton Oilers, with a playoff spot still not secured for the Canadiens.
It wasn’t a surprise to see him come through with his biggest game of the season to help the Canadiens clinch in that first one.
It was even less of one to see Byron bust up the ice, win that loose puck from Sandin and create a memory that will last him, his family and Canadiens fans a lifetime.
“A lot of people sent me that photo,” Byron said. “It was a special moment for sure.”
With Evans only able to play 13 shifts in the game before leaving it during the second period, and with him potentially missing Game 2 with an undisclosed injury, there’s a chance Jesperi Kotkaniemi will slide in with Byron and Lehkonen.
It would be the most natural fit, with Kotkaniemi having played five of his best games of the season between those wingers before closing out the season on a sour note with other ones.
“He brings skill, great vision, he’s great with the puck,” said Byron of the 20-year-old centre. “Being with me and Lehky, we’re north-south players who play up and down the ice and forecheck hard, and I think (that) complements his game. He’s more about finding spots, a vision guy, reading the play, so I think he can read off of us and play his game and play simple. We know how good he can be with the puck.”
Kotkaniemi has gotten better without it this season, too, even if it was clear over the final two weeks he wasn’t particularly effective in any area of the ice.
When Ducharme made the decision to sit Kotkaniemi from Game 1, after dressing him for all the games since taking over from Claude Julien as coach on Feb. 24, he explained that the inability to hold more than a handful of practices while the schedule offered little pause made it particularly challenging to help Kotkaniemi back to his game.
“Regarding Kotkaniemi, who had a tough end of season, I see him a bit like hammering a nail,” Ducharme said. “At a certain point, the nail starts to get crooked, and if you keep smacking on it, it only becomes more crooked. What we went through towards the end of the season didn’t allow us to straighten out the nail. With our schedule and all our injuries and everything else, we had to just keep smacking away at it. And what we’re doing right now, with this week of preparation and everything else, is straightening out KK.
“And I’m not looking too far ahead, but say KK plays Game 2, it’ll be his 57th of 58 games this year. He just needs to keep progressing and advancing in this process. We like him, we like his potential and like what he does and what he’s going to become. We’re just taking one step back to straighten him out so he’s the KK we want to have and the KK he wants to be for when he does get in. He needs to continue to progress to be the player we want and he wants to be in the long term, too.”
With the week of practices and Game 1 now in the review mirror, Ducharme is sensing Kotkaniemi will be able to rise to the occasion if called upon.
“Rest did him well, and I think that was beneficial for the team—mentally as much as physically,” the coach said. “But having quality practices and having to time to train can make a difference for a young player, too. We feel that the minute he gets into a game, he’s going to be solid and prepared to be dynamic. We’ll see the KK we want to have and the one he wants to be, too.”
It’s not guaranteed we’ll see the Finn on Saturday, with Evans still a possibility. Cole Caufield is another, with Byron potentially moving to centre if Evans can’t play.
Is playoff Staal here to stay?
Eric Staal couldn’t quite put his finger on why it would be the case he’d be able to elevate his game when the playoffs rolled around, but he said a few weeks ago it’s just what players always do at this time of year.
It wasn’t exactly a confidence-inspiring assertion, pulling at the intangible to assure the skeptics he’d offer something meaningful after struggling throughout the entire regular season to kick his game into gear.
Everyone had it in perspective that the situation with the Buffalo Sabres was bad for everyone, and that Staal’s three-goal, 10-point, minus-20 output in 32 games prior to joining the Canadiens ahead of the trade deadline could be taken with a grain of salt. Quarantining there and then running through a hectic schedule after the Sabres were ravaged by COVID-19 was taken into consideration in the evaluation of his play, and I wasn’t the only one to suggest he could help bolster Montreal’s depth up the middle.
It was understandable that Staal struggled out of the gate with the Canadiens after another quarantine served — and certainly after the COVID break that followed Joel Armia’s positive test for the virus — but as the team was fighting tooth and nail to get into the playoffs, Staal wasn’t able to raise his game and contribute. Even if we learned from Ducharme that Staal had been playing with a minor injury for a few games, that didn’t account for what we saw from 21 in a Montreal uniform.
I figured Staal would at least be rested coming into Game 1, but wasn’t sure that would enable him to be that much more effective.
He ended up catching me completely off guard with the way he played as soon as the puck dropped on Thursday. He started the game at a higher speed than we saw him play at any point over the last two months. He was dynamic and physical, he set up a goal and easily could’ve finished the night with one of his own and a couple more assists.
Staal didn’t surprise himself, though. He said he knew all along he had another level and that it would come out when the situation called for it.
“I know it’s there,” the 36-year-old Triple Gold Club member said. “I know it’s there and I expected to see it. I came here to help this group and integrate myself within the structure of this team and to play in the playoffs. It was a grind to get there, like I said, like we talked about ad nauseam with the schedule we had. And I think now, having this chance to reset and refocus, you’ve got to enjoy it, you’ve got to embrace it, and this is why I’m excited to be a part of this group—for this challenge, this opportunity.
“Game 2 tomorrow, and I can’t wait. I feel like I can help this group and be a contributor and try and help us make a difference to win the series and move on.”
Canadiens wishing John Tavares well
In the immediate aftermath of Tavares being knocked out of the game in a freak collision with Corey Perry, the Canadiens released the following statement:
On Friday, upon hearing Tavares was dispatched from hospital and resting under the observation of team doctors, the Canadiens we spoke with were quite relieved.
“That’s great news to hear,” said Staal. “I hadn’t heard that news yet, so obviously wish him the best in his recovery. Like I said, I know a lot of people around the game and a lot of people who know John well, and I’ve heard nothing but positive and great things about him as a person and as a player. Being a guy with a wife and kids and knowing that he has the same, it wouldn’t have been easy for them or anybody, so I’m glad to hear he’s recovering back at home. We definitely wish him the best.”
— John Tavares (@91Tavares) May 21, 2021
As for watching the events unfold as they did — with Perry’s knee colliding with Tavares’s head, with the Leafs captain disoriented and trying but failing to get up while trainers were attempting to stabilize his head and neck, and with Nick Foligno engaging Perry in a fight after Tavares left on a stretcher — Staal was disturbed.
“It was scary for everybody,” he said. “Everybody that was in the building, everybody that was on the ice, you never want to see that. John’s a great person, and obviously that’s all you’re worried about at the time — especially with the empty building. I’ve seen a lot of things in this game, and that whole scenario was no fun to be a part of. And then to follow it up with that (fight), I didn’t love it, but maybe it felt like the thing to do to kind of get it over with and get it out of the way.”