Alex Belzile hunted down the puck as it banked hard off the boards.
What he did when he caught up to it emphasized to what extent these seemingly meaningless late-season games between non-playoff teams do, in fact, matter.
They matter for every player participating in them, especially the ones playing for the Montreal Canadiens, who are all auditioning for jobs next season and participating in a competition that’s getting stronger by the day.
Belzile was one of many Canadiens players who made this 4-3 shootout win over the Sabres, in Buffalo, count for something. And you could argue the 31-year-old has more to lose than any of his teammates as this season winds down.
The ludicrous injury situation the Canadiens have dealt with at forward gave the AHL lifer his first real extended look at this level, and every time he steps on the ice provides him with an opportunity to prove it’s where he belongs.
Belzile won’t get a better chance, so it’s critical he takes advantage of this one.
When you saw him charge into the offensive zone, scoop that banked puck up off the boards, fake a slap shot to get Sabres goaltender Eric Comrie to his knees and fire it bar-down for his sixth goal and 14thpoint in 28 games, that was him continuing to take full advantage.
That goal, which the fourth liner scored with the confidence of a sure-fire NHLer, will make it harder for Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis to scratch him on Tuesday to make room for Sean Farrell, who just signed his entry-level contract on Sunday after a dominant sophomore season at Harvard University.
What St. Louis has to like is that most of the players he might have considered parking for Farrell for Tuesday’s game against the Philadelphia Flyers made it a near-impossible choice.
Belzile’s beauty came on one of 14 blue-collar shifts he had in the game. Rookie Jesse Ylonen, who came to Buffalo having registered four goals in his last five contests, put in a strong performance and notched an assist on the game-tying goal Brendan Gallagher scored in the third period. And Michael Pezzetta, who played a team-low 6:25, was tapped in the sixth round of the shootout and did something no one in the building was expecting.
Pezzetta came streaking down the right boards, corralled the puck with his left-handed stick and shifted it over to his forehand before clanking it off the post and in to win the game. He then rode his stick in a celebration he later confirmed to reporters in Buffalo was a tribute to Dave “Tiger” Williams and took in a moment he’ll remember forever.
“I might never get a chance again (that), if I score, I might win the game,” Pezzetta said. “It was funny. I’ll never forget it.”
He won’t forget that he was a healthy scratch for 13 of the Canadiens’ first 15 games, either.
Try telling him this night in Buffalo didn’t matter.
It meant a great deal to Jordan Harris, who opened the scoring for the Canadiens and vaulted himself into seventh among all rookie defencemen in points.
He’s now got 17 in 62 games this season. He’s also averaging the seventh-most ice time among all NHL rookies, and the 18:53 he played against the Sabres showed to what extent he’s an important part of the Canadiens blue line moving forward.
Considering the competition evolving there — with Lane Hutson and Logan Mailloux knocking on the door of a defence that already integrated five rookies this season and has a couple of veterans in Mike Matheson and David Savard proving to be indispensable for the near future — that’s huge.
Up front, Belzile, Ylonen and Pezzetta continued to make their mark.
With Rafael Harvey-Pinard, who scored a hat trick on Saturday, also flourishing, think about how much these games matter to Gallagher and Jake Evans.
They spent months on the IR before returning to play last week and, for as happy as both of them were for their new teammates, had to be feeling helpless watching their places get adequately filled.
St. Louis said that for them, playing well in these last games of the season would be a bonus to playing in them at all.
But not only is it crucial that both Gallagher and Evans are playing well; it’s vital that they’re doing it together to show they can potentially form a strong duo next season.
Both recorded points on Saturday against Columbus and followed that up with points against Buffalo.
It was a back-and-forth game against a Sabres team clawing to remain in a race that’s slipping from their grasp and the Canadiens played most of it like it was just as important to them.
St. Louis said he didn’t like a section of their first period but loved the way they corrected course and outshot the Sabres by nearly double over the second and third.
That charge started with a great play by Belzile. The kind of play that will keep him in this league, whether it’s with the Canadiens or another team next season.