‘Josh is back’: Canadiens need the Anderson they got in loss to Panthers

Aleksander Barkov, Evan Rodrigues and Carter Verhaeghe each had a goal and an assist, Sergei Bobrovsky made 22 saves on the night, and the Florida Panthers handled the Montreal Canadiens 5-1.

MONTREAL— “Josh is back.”

Martin St. Louis said this with total conviction. The Canadiens’ coach believed it so much he decided to repeat it twice more over his four-minute press conference that followed this loss and saw the player he was referring to go goalless for a 23rd straight game.

“You saw tonight,” St. Louis said. “Josh is back.”

Josh, in case you haven’t figured it out yet, is Josh Anderson, and anyone watching the way he played against the Florida Panthers on Thursday would’ve agreed with St. Louis’ assessment. This was indeed a vintage performance from the six-foot-three power forward, minus the one thing that has always marked a game he has physically dominated to this extent — a goal.

Anderson deserved at least one in this 5-1 loss, in which he registered five hits and terrorized the Panthers before using one as a punching bag with 44 seconds remaining.

But hey, let’s acknowledge a hard truth right here and now: For Josh to be back, he had to have been gone. Anderson’s performance was mostly strong and never rewarded through the first 15 games of the season, but there’s no denying he then sunk into himself and into the misery that would only naturally accompany that type of misfortune over the seven that preceded this one.

But Anderson was the old Anderson on Thursday. He looked like the guy who topped out at 27 goals with the Columbus Blue Jackets and scored roughly 20 in each of his first three seasons with the Canadiens. And now they have to hope this game, in which he was labelled their best player by captain Nick Suzuki and assistant captain Brendan Gallagher, doesn’t send him wallowing.

Because the Canadiens need this version of Anderson, especially now that Alex Newhook looks like he’s going to miss some time with a lower-body injury after he crashed into Sergei Bobrovsky’s net and was unable to put any weight on his left leg as trainers helped him off the ice. They need the mean, turbocharged player, who immediately drew a power play on the game’s first shift by taking a big run at Niko Mikkola and then drew another one with 1:25 to go in the first period.

Suzuki and Gallagher agreed Anderson deserved a penalty shot after he was hauled down in the clear by Gustav Forsling. It could’ve been the chance he needed to finally get the silverback gorilla off his back, but his breakaway chance was stolen away and never returned.

It didn’t seem to bother him as he drove Sam Bennett into the boards and punished several other Panthers with hits. And maybe Anderson flushed whatever frustration that might have lingered out when he pummeled Jonah Gadjovich in a fight and stormed his way off the ice as time was close to expiring.

Suzuki hopes so.

“He was really good, really dominant all game, tons of chances, using his physicality,” he said. “I mean, it was one of his best games, definitely, in a long time. Hopefully, he feels good about himself now and just keeps doing that and, over time, every goal will come back for him.”

That would be something, but Anderson has admitted that these are the nights that have kept him awake of late. They are the ones on which his team needs the offensive contribution he can provide, and he’s been pained in not delivering it.

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Can Anderson console himself knowing he isn’t the only one struggling to find the back of the net?

Sean Monahan, who put in six over the first 10 games, hasn’t hit it since Nov. 2. And Thursday’s game was Suzuki’s ninth in a row without a goal, despite him registering 31 shot attempts and 17 scoring chances over that time.

Even he is shaking his head.

“It is frustrating,” Suzuki said, “but you’ve just got to stick with the process. You’re getting those opportunities for a reason, they’re going to go in eventually.”

You have to wonder how easily Anderson can prescribe to that mentality after none of his chances even led to a shot on net against the Panthers, let alone a goal.

There’s no debating he played like the player he’s paid to be, like this November game meant as much to him as one in late April. And that’s something for him to build off.

“When he plays like that, he’s really hard to stop,” said Suzuki. “Those D are scared of him coming down.”

Anderson wasn’t scaring anyone prior to this game, but he was indeed back against the Panthers.

Now he needs to stay.

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