With a strong performance, Chiarot could be leaving Canadiens on high note

Claude Giroux reached the 900 point milestone with a goal in the second period, but Cole Caufield scored the game-winner, and the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Philadelphia Flyers 4-3 in overtime.

Ben Chiarot played 26:32 to lead the Montreal Canadiens in time on ice in a 4-3 win over the Philadelphia Flyers Sunday.

If I hadn’t told you, would you have even noticed?

Oh, I know you saw it when Chiarot pulled a spin-around pass out of his bag to set Rem Pitlick up with the game-tying goal 43 seconds from the end of the third period.

But had he not pulled that trick off, would he even be a part of your post-game conversation with whoever you watched with?

I’m making Chiarot one here because it was fitting that the 6-foot-3, 234-pound defenceman was far from the centre of attention on this night. In what might have been his last game as a Montreal Canadien this season (or possibly ever), with the trade deadline a week away and the team having three more to play before we get there, Chiarot was in the shadow of Nick Suzuki, who scored two goals and set a new career-high with 43 points in his 59th game of the season. He was on the bench watching when Cole Caufield uncorked a ripping slapshot to ice the game 2:10 into overtime. And at other points, when he was on the ice, he was, for the most part, understated.

Heck, Chiarot was borderline invisible, which is an odd thing to say about a man built like a refrigerator. 

But don’t mistake that for a suggestion he was bad. It’s quite the opposite.

He played steady, reliable defence. He helped keep the puck away from Canadiens goaltender Samuel Montembeault, managed to move it quickly out of Montreal’s end, and he did what he had to in order to keep it alive in the offensive zone.

The Hamilton native also came up huge on the penalty kill—especially right before Caufield scored—and just did his job without any fanfare. You know, he did it the way he has done it for the majority of his 164 games as a Canadien.

I don’t think Chiarot’s ever gotten adequate credit for what he’s contributed here. I hear fans and pundits in other markets complain about his analytical footprint being too small, I see comments about how no one should pay the Canadiens a first-round pick to rent him ahead of the deadline, and I honestly just laugh about it.

The same way I got a chuckle out of Montreal fans calling it a terrible deal when he was signed for three years and $10.5 million in July of 2019.

Boy, were they beating their chests and yelling out I-told-you-so’s when Chiarot stumbled out of the gate in his first two regular-season games as a Canadien.

I remember walking into the dressing room—back when we were allowed in there—and saying to him, “Hope you’re not reading Twitter these days.”

“Ha, they’re all over me,” he responded.

He may have thrown in an expletive or two.

Then we sat down for a few minutes, and I asked him a pertinent question.

“For the six years you spent in Winnipeg with the Jets, where was your first look on the breakout?”

I knew the answer. Coming from a Jets team loaded with massive wingers who won board battles with ease, of course it was to the sides.

The problem was Claude Julien’s tweaked system in Montreal was forcing Chiarot, and every other Canadiens defenceman, to look to the middle as his first out.

“How long will it take you to adjust,” I asked.

Chiarot said it might take two more games to undo more than a half-decade of muscle memory built up with the Jets. He also said that he’s traditionally a slow starter.

I wrote this column later that day, and then Chiarot took off immediately from there—posting a career-high nine goals and 21 points in just 69 games.

His value became clearer and clearer that season, but it was only truly reinforced in a place so few got to watch him.

Not that there weren’t hundreds of thousands of fans watching the Canadiens play in the 2020 Bubble Playoffs in Toronto. It’s just that none of them could’ve possibly gotten a full glimpse of what Chiarot actually does in a game just by witnessing it on television.

But I was in the stands at Scotiabank Arena, and I watched him physically abuse the Pittsburgh Penguins and Flyers away from the puck. Every time Sidney Crosby or Sean Couturier got within a stick length of Chiarot, they noticed him, too. He crosschecked them, punched them, leaned on them, hit them and just played the intimidating brand of hockey that playoffs are made of. He made an impression on everyone in attendance—not just on media, but on the Canadiens’ personnel and on that of their opposition.

Then in last year’s post-season, Chiarot did it again—this time averaging 25:15 per game and punishing everyone around him in front of a larger live audience. The 30-year-old played a massive role in helping the Canadiens get to the Stanley Cup Final, and plenty of other important people took notice.

Now one of them out there has a chance to get him, and he won’t come cheap.

“They’re asking for a first-round pick and a good prospect,” said one league executive who works for a team very interested in Chiarot’s services.

“I don’t know if we can do that, and I think it’s a bit high, but I’d ask for it too. You can say there’s a lot of D-men on the market, but there are none like him. A guy his size who moves really well. A guy who can play 26 minutes in a playoff game. And he just does everything.”

On this night in Philadelphia, Chiarot showed a sample of his unheralded offensive ability on Pitlick’s 12th goal of the season.

“He definitely, when I watch him, he has a really interesting, creative side to his game,” Pitlick told reporters after the game. “He had that overtime goal in Calgary (last week) where he drove the net. And, tonight, that was just a really cool play.

“It’s not easy to come out of a spin, get your head up and get your head looking the other direction. That was a great play. Very creative.”

Perhaps Chiarot will make one or two more of those when the Canadiens play the Arizona Coyotes at the Bell Centre on Tuesday. The NHL isn’t fond of players being sat out of games unless a trade is not only imminent but specifically in the process of getting the I’s dotted and the T’s crossed.

But the Canadiens are going to trade Chiarot, and they have to be concerned about taking any further risk with a player who will fetch a return that may not be as great as what they’re asking for but will certainly be a big help to their future. They saw Arizona’s Jakob Chychrun—a big trade target for several teams also looking at Chiarot—go down on the weekend, they saw Chiarot twist his ankle and miss a week of action less than a month ago, and they definitely don’t want to see anything like either instance before next Monday.

Sunday’s game could very well have been the big man’s last with the Canadiens. It went as most of them have in his time with the Canadiens, and it feels right to give him the credit for it when he rarely got it for equally strong performances.

If this is it, Chiarot’s leaving Montreal on a high note.

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