Ryan Poehling needs to elevate his game for Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens prospect Ryan Poehling says it's go time for him to prove that he's ready for the big stage, says there's no time for excuses, and it's all about trusting your game and having fun.

It wasn’t a knock on Ryan Poehling.

This tweet, sent out after the Ottawa Senators made it 7-2 over Poehling’s Montreal Canadiens seconds into the third period of their exhibition game at Canadian Tire Centre on Friday, was simply outlining his reality.

It hasn’t been a bad training camp for Poehling, and it wasn’t a particularly bad night for him in Ottawa either. The 22-year-old has displayed over the last week-and-a-half that he’s gained speed and maturity, and he showed on Friday that he could avoid being a liability in a shellacking.

He also won six of 11 faceoffs, so there’s that.

But there’s also this: When Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme was asked about Poehling’s game, he didn’t have much to say.

“In general, it was an ordinary game,” Ducharme said. “There’s no one who really stood out. It was OK. Actually, not OK. In general, it wasn’t a big game. It’s obviously not easy for any player to stand out in (a) game like that. It’s hard to pinpoint on one guy after that.”

Poehling didn’t necessarily have to score to show better. He knows that won’t be at the heart of his role in the NHL, if he makes it.

But the Lakeville, Minn., native would be the first to acknowledge he needed to do more to stand out. It wasn’t going to be easy to do with everyone disconnected, but it was necessary because he was staring down the best opportunity he’s had since he was drafted 25th overall in 2017 to secure a full-time position with the Canadiens after spending last season with Laval in the AHL.

Poehling’s main competition here, Cedric Paquette, is sidelined with a lower-body injury, and the door is wide open for him to jump through.

But he didn’t get his feet off the ground.

Doing so would’ve meant winning one-on-one battles -- Poehling didn’t do enough of that on Friday -- and helping his line sustain some offensive-zone pressure, which he struggled with.

It’s not all bad. Poehling showed flashes in a lopsided loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs to open exhibition play last weekend. He had a strong second half in the Red-White scrimmage at the Bell Centre a day later.

But there was nothing remarkable about what Poehling did in Ottawa, and the three games to come will play a big hand in dictating whether or not he remains with the Canadiens. It won’t rule the entire evaluation -- Ducharme said his body of work in his two seasons as a professional is part of it -- but Poehling needs to be able to show he can fill a role as the competition ramps up.

“The games, for him, for sure they count for a lot because we want him to (earn a spot) ... He had a good end of the season last year in Laval, and we’re aware of that, and now it’s NHL games,” said Ducharme. “The more we’re going to go, the closer we’re going to be to those NHL games. Obviously, we want to see that and how he can have impact at the NHL level in the games.”

Ducharme can also do more to test it with Poehling.

While he did give him over four minutes of power-play time on Friday, that’s not likely to be a role Poehling takes on when the games matter. And it’s curious that he hasn’t played a second on the penalty kill in any of the games he’s dressed for -- scrimmage included -- so he could at least show he can contribute in that aspect.

Also, with respect to Alex Belzile and Lukas Vejdemo, the roster shrinking will at least give Poehling a better chance to show what he can do between two players he’s more likely to play with in Montreal.

On Saturday, he’ll be with Artturi Lehkonen and Jesse Ylonen when the Senators visit the Bell Centre. It would be more interesting to see what he can do with Lehkonen and Mathieu Perreault but, with Paquette out, Perreault is getting a look at centre.

Still, Poehling needs to show he can drive his line, and he needs to be noticeable every time he steps on the ice because it’s guaranteed he wants to prove he can do a lot more than just being able to win at least 50 per cent of his faceoffs and avoid finishing the night with a minus next to his name.

Chris Wideman in pole position

Chris Wideman gained a leg up in the competition for a spot on Montreal’s blue line to start the season before he even dressed for Friday’s game.

With Mattias Norlinder injured and unavailable to play -- he had an MRI on Friday and his status for next week is questionable as well -- one threat to Wideman’s position was virtually eliminated.

Sami Niku going down minutes into Friday’s game is another. The Finnish defenceman, who signed a two-way deal with Montreal last week, was pasted into the boards from behind by Josh Norris and came up bleeding into his visor. He immediately left for the dressing room and the team later announced he had sustained an upper-body injury and would not be returning to the game.

Ducharme updated on Saturday morning that Niku sustained a concussion and would be sidelined “a little while."

Meanwhile, it was fairly obviously Niku wasn’t likely to return early on Friday and Wideman just went about his business regardless in the game. He played 22:43, posted assists on both goals the Canadiens scored, finished plus-two, had four of nine shot attempts hit the net, and he blocked one shot. He looked good on the power play, appeared steady in his own end, and was noticeable every time he stepped on the ice.

The 31-year-old, who was named the KHL’s top defenceman last year, wasn’t perfect, but he was better than anyone else on the Canadiens.

“He was perhaps one who had a bit more positive in his game,” said Ducharme. “He moved the puck well, and not just on the power play but at five-on-five too. There’s still games to go.”

Wideman will pair up for Saturday’s game with Brett Kulak -- another player he’s in competition with -- and if he proves to be as effective as he was on Friday, that will bode well for his chances to be among the six defencemen starting in Toronto on Oct. 13.

He’s not taking anything for granted. This is a player who played the bulk of his 181 NHL games before his career was derailed by a serious injury and a controversial Uber ride He spent two seasons in the AHL and jumped to the KHL upon realizing there weren’t many NHL teams willing to take a chance on him.

Now Wideman is back, and in prime position to redeem his career in the world’s best hockey league.

“It’s almost a new lease on life, right? How many times do you get a second opportunity in life?” he said earlier this week. “It’s something that, every day, I get in bed at the end of the day and I’m very thankful for it. At the same time, you know that every single day could be the last, so just maximum effort, maximum focus.”

Chiarot-Savard finally paired

Friday wasn’t a banner night for Ben Chiarot and David Savard, who respectively finished minus-three and minus-four.

But two veterans who played all the way through early July aren’t exactly under the microscope during pre-season. Especially not in games with mashed up NHL-AHL-junior lineups.

Friday was the first time this presumptive pairing took a shift together, and it came in the middle of the game, with each of them already behind the 8-ball.

Both of them have been skating with youngsters like Norlinder and Kaiden Guhle to this point, and that was a fine idea to get those players acclimated to this environment.

But if Chiarot and Savard are going to play together this season -- and it looks highly probable they will -- they need time to establish some chemistry together. We’ll see if a week-and-a-half proves to be enough, because the season is rapidly approaching.

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