Evans’ injury makes Canadiens’ loss vs. Islanders hurt that much more

Ilya Sorokin saved 22 of the 23 shots he faced while Anthony Beauvillier and Casey Cizikas provided the offence, each scoring a goal to help the New York Islanders defeat the Montreal Canadiens 2-1.

Jake Evans pulled back the last faceoff of the first period, fell to his knees, and then couldn’t get up of his own volition after bearing the full weight of Brock Nelson’s 210-pound frame on his left leg.

Talk about an unfavourable position to be in, especially given Evans’ play and standing with the Canadiens of late. The 26-year-old centre was coming off arguably his best performance of the season in a 4-3 win over the Nashville Predators Thursday, he had produced four points in his last four games to bring his season total to 11, and hours before Nelson left him writhing in pain and needing help to leave the ice, his coach was signing his praises to reporters in New York on Saturday. 

“I think, at the beginning of the season, he wasn’t in the chair he’s in now and perhaps in the chair he was in last year,” said St. Louis, who had cast Evans as his fourth-line centre—a role in which he excelled defensively but struggled to score a goal before the 34th game of the season—and left him in that seat until Sean Monahan finally left the lineup to heal up a nagging foot injury in early December. 

Evans had produced 13 goals and 29 points in 72 games last season by often playing as a third-line pivot in the absence of the kind of depth up the middle the Canadiens entered this season with. He had shown he could handle more than just shutdown assignments and penalty-kill work, but he had to wait this time around for an opportunity to do more.

“The circumstances made it that way,” said St. Louis. “But it’s rare Jake doesn’t work hard in a game, and he got rewarded last game, and I think he’s in a better chair now.”

When the second period of Saturday’s 2-1 loss to the Islanders began, Evans couldn’t even sit on the Canadiens’ bench. 

The team announced he’d miss the rest of the game with a lower-body injury and, given that—and how bad it looked when he went down—it was impossible not to think about how his long-term absence would certainly be felt.

In the immediate aftermath of Evans going down, centre Nick Suzuki got the Canadiens on the board in the third period, scoring his 16th goal of the season—his first since Dec. 17, 11 games ago. Kirby Dach shifted off the top line and into Evans’ spot between Joel Armia and Evgenii Dadonov, Christian Dvorak remained between Juraj Slafkovksy and Josh Anderson, and Jonathan Drouin, who was centering a line with a rotating winger because St. Louis only dressed 11 forwards, took Dach’s place on the wing. Everyone looked alright as the Canadiens chased the game.

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“I thought we responded pretty well when Jake went down,” St. Louis said.

But you have to wonder how the Canadiens will look without Monahan and Evans moving forward.

The team has gone 5-11-1 in Monahan’s absence, allowing 69 goals and scoring only 36 in 17 games. The stability he offered through his 25 played could only be offset so much by Evans, and now you really have to wonder if Monahan will show as well—he’s expected back at some point over the next week or so—with Evans down.

You also really have to feel for Evans, who emerged as a leader by example when the Canadiens hit their lowest point this season. 

He’s played a feisty game, won a smidgen less than 52 per cent of his faceoffs, been Montreal’s most reliable penalty killer, and contributed offensively when thrust in a role that’s enabled him to. 

As of right now, it’s impossible to say when Evans will be able to resume that role.

“Hopefully it’s not serious,” said St. Louis of his injury. “We’ll see when he gets diagnosed.”

And we’ll see how the coach manages Evans’ absence Sunday against the Rangers.

Suzuki and linemate Cole Caufield haven’t been nearly as productive without Dach on their line this season and are going to be challenged once again to change that—likely with Jesse Ylonen, who took two shifts with them before Drouin was bumped up against the Islanders.

It’s not as if the options up front are abundant for St. Louis, who only has 11 forwards with him in New York now that Evans is down. 

Dach has to remain in the middle. Drouin has to move back there. 

Counting those two, Suzuki and Dvorak, St. Louis said, “We have four who can play centre.”

It was right after he had said, “We have some players who are capable.”

Just “capable” isn’t likely to cut it, especially for a Canadiens team that wants so badly to distance itself from its losing ways over the last month and take a step forward in its development over the second half of the season. 

Evans’ injury is terrible news for Evans, and it could prove costly to the Canadiens in those aims. And if you only judged the player based on his early-season production—or lack thereof—when he was occupying a lesser chair, you might not realize just how costly it could be.

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