Canadiens, Struble must hope injury suffered vs. Penguins not as bad as it looked

Kris Letang scored twice, Drew O'Connor added a goal and an assist, and the Pittsburgh Penguins took down the Montreal Canadiens 4-1.

It was an ugly loss, and we’re not even referring to the 4-1 result the Montreal Canadiens were on the wrong end of on Thursday night in Pittsburgh.

No, we’re talking about the way Jayden Struble dropped to his knees and came up limping and needing to be helped to the Canadiens’ room late in the third period. He had crossed over the Penguins’ blue line in possession of the puck, pivoted smoothly to make a simple play and, within a split second of executing it, gone from appearing to be perfectly fine to appearing to be in serious distress.

A non-contact injury leaving Struble unable to put any weight on his left leg would be a terrible interruption to one of the best stories of this Canadiens season. The former second-round pick made his professional debut with the AHL’s Laval Rocket before surprisingly leaping up to the NHL and quickly leapfrogging some of the young defencemen in the Canadiens’ pecking order. This was his 39th game of solid hockey in the world’s best league and now both he and the Canadiens have to hope it wasn’t his last of the season.

After all, Struble’s sudden development had somewhat changed the complexion of the team’s blue line—expanding the NHL depth chart and opening up different possibilities for both the immediate and distant future—and the last thing he and the Canadiens would want is for that process to be stunted.

It has to be a concern for the 22-year-old, who had already gone through his fair share of injuries on his way to the professional ranks. And it’s certainly one for a Canadiens team that’s seen too many development curves bent out of shape by injury over the last three seasons, which were fundamentally about development above all else.

Fingers crossed the injury’s not as serious as it looked, because it looked hideous.

Speaking of ugly…

The Canadiens’ record in the second half of back-to-back games fell to an NHL-worst 1-10, which is about as repugnant as it gets. Unless you consider how lopsided some of those losses have been.

Thursday marked the eighth time the Canadiens have lost by at least three goals in the second half of a back-to-back, and that’s a tough phenomenon to explain for this young team.

Youth is a double-edged sword in that it should enable the team to at least have more energy than a veteran group in these situations but also naturally inhibits the group from handling these situations the way they need to be handled—with simple, risk-averse and efficient hockey.

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Hey, it’s not like the Canadiens didn’t attempt to play that way in Pittsburgh. It’s just that for the 10th time this season, the Canadiens failed to execute it through 60 minutes.

They started well, notching the game’s first five shots and scoring its first goal off a turnover.

But the Canadiens were unable to sustain momentum in the second period, allowing two goals in 21 seconds and failing to capitalize on the chances they were given to climb back into the game.

They pushed hard in the third period, but they failed to break through.

Perhaps they’ll do better in their last game of the season, on the second half of a home-at-home series with the Detroit Red Wings.

A move that benefits the Canadiens and Rocket

The Canadiens claimed Colin White from the Penguins earlier in the day and waived Brandon Gignac with the hopes he’ll pass through Friday and join the Rocket’s playoff push.

He was their leading scorer before signing a two-way deal that placed him on the NHL roster coming out of the bye-week, and he’ll offer some much-needed reinforcement to a team that’s going to hopefully get some more as we move along.

You figure the fifth-overall pick in the 2023 Draft, David Reinbacher, could be added in the coming weeks. You wonder if 2022 third-rounder Adam Engstrom might follow, as well.

Either way, the Rocket will take any help they can get as they attempt to surge up the tight North Division standings and make a push.

The Canadiens are going in the opposite direction, and keeping Gignac around for that doesn’t make much sense.

White, however, is an experienced NHLer who can help them play out the string. The 27-year-old has 304 NHL games under his belt and, on a personal level, is also staring at a good opportunity to redeem a career that’s fallen way off since the impressive 2018-19 season that saw him produce 41 points in 71 games with the Ottawa Senators.

They bought White out in 2022 and he’s been unable to be as serviceable at this level ever since, leading to the Penguins waiving him on Wednesday.

But considering White bag-skated with his former team hours before playing reasonably well against them in his Canadiens debut, he at least inspired a bit of hope he might be able to take advantage of this new opportunity to earn a new contract.

Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis used White for a little over 11 minutes and might be able to rely on him a little more than he was relying on Gignac and his fourth line of late.

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