Big night for Slafkovsky, Xhekaj helps set foundation for Canadiens

Juraj Slafkovsky had his first career NHL goal and Nick Suzuki scored a highlight reel penalty shot as the Montreal Canadiens dominated the Arizona Coyotes 6-2.

MONTREAL— Long before Nick Suzuki revived one of Pavel Datsyuk’s nicest NHL breakaway moves for his third goal of the season, before 18-year-old Juraj Slafkovsky had the Bell Centre faithful chanting his name in celebration of him scoring his first-ever NHL goal just as he’d have dreamt it up, and even before Arber Xhekaj punched out one of the NHL’s longest-serving pugilists, the Montreal Canadiens asserted themselves against the Arizona Coyotes.

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They put three goals by Connor Ingram before allowing a single shot to be directed at Jake Allen’s net on Thursday. They disrupted Arizona’s flow, stole pucks and kept possession of them, and they finished off their best scoring chances to earn a commanding lead just 7:17 into the first period.

Slafkovsky, who was drafted first overall by the Canadiens this past summer, took advantage of Xhekaj’s unexpected deep pinch on Josh Brown, receiving the puck off the turnover and uncorking a snapshot between Ingram’s body and his glove to make it 4-0 in the second.

It was just 10 minutes after the kid taunted Brown in the corner and then saluted the crowd from the bench that his captain was awarded a penalty shot and reached into a Hall-of-Famer’s old bag of tricks to score on it—delaying his shot on a fake drag to his backhand before casually flipping it over Ingram’s arm for a 5-0 lead.

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Sean Monahan scored into an empty net after the Canadiens gave up two third-period goals to make the final 6-2, marking Montreal’s second straight win in a game the home side mostly owned from the start.

You could say it’s all meaningless, that the average hockey fan couldn’t name six players on a Coyotes team that was expressly constructed — or deconstructed — to tank to the bottom of the NHL standings, and that there’s nothing the Canadiens should really take from this.

But you’d be wrong.

“It’s the National Hockey League,” said Brendan Gallagher, who notched his first goal of the year to put the Canadiens up 3-0. “Just like us, they came to the rink tonight expecting to win. They came from Toronto, where they beat a really good team. They’re competing like everyone else.”

But the Canadiens competed harder and laid another brick in the foundation they’re trying to build.

They are a young team trying to establish an identity, and nights like the ones they’ve enjoyed this week are pivotal in that process.

On Monday, the Canadiens were the better team in a 3-2, come-from-behind overtime victory over a Pittsburgh Penguins team that’s head-and-shoulders above them and the Coyotes. And before Thursday’s game, coach Martin St. Louis said he wanted to see them replicate the process that led to that win.

“We talked a lot about that this morning, asking: Can we repeat that? Can we understand the way we did things last game that enabled us to have success,” asked St. Louis.

“Would that make us win? I don’t know,” he continued. “But it will help us have a chance to win. So, it’s a group decision to recognize how we did things last game and come back and do it again.”

That the Canadiens did, and that it resulted in another win, drives their process forward.

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That’s another thing that matters, despite what people hoping for the Canadiens to secure the best draft lottery odds by losing as many games as possible might think.

Winning matters, even for teams who aren’t expected to win very often.

Sure, player development is the top priority of this Canadiens team in transition.

But the biggest challenge to proper development is losing so much it becomes a ritual.

The Canadiens can focus all their energy on working with the individuals and working on the process, but if the individuals don’t produce enough and the process so rarely generates wins it’s impossible to suggest the environment is ripe for good development.

A lot of work went into the Canadiens winning their first two games of this week to get to 3-2-0 on their season. Just like a lot of it went into Slafkovsky scoring a goal in just his fifth NHL game and Xhekaj scoring a big fight win over Zack Kassian and making a smart — albeit unconventional — read to create the turnover for Slafkovsky to enjoy a moment he’ll remember for the rest of his life.

They’ll all be better for that.

“I think as an organization, as we deal with players individually, we’re very process-focused,” said St. Louis. “But the result is important for the confidence of the group. Winning’s got to be part of the process, too. And individually, producing has got to be part of the process, too.”

The Canadiens got deeper into that process after frustrating losses to the Detroit Red Wings and Washington Capitals.

They took a step in the right direction against Pittsburgh, and carried that momentum into the start of the game against Arizona.

“I thought we had a deep-game mentality early, and possessing in the o-zone,” said St. Louis. “We got a few good bounces, we forced the team to turn pucks over, we played on top of them, which I felt we really did against Pit, and we were opportunistic with our chances…

“I thought we started the game the way we finished, which is a good sign.”

That continuity is what makes the process healthy.

It doesn’t mean the Canadiens are about to pile up wins and vault up the standings. And even if they do right now, they don’t really have the talent or depth to sustain it.

But the Canadiens have begun to establish a template for how they want to play, and doing so against a weaker opponent takes nothing away from that.

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