MONTREAL — Let’s pick up where we left off: Nick Suzuki owning a bad performance after 10 great ones to start the season.
“It was definitely a tough night,” Suzuki said after the Montreal Canadiens lost 3-2 to the Ottawa Senators and he won just 27 per cent of his faceoffs, finishing minus-1.
“Definitely my worst game of the year so far. I was fighting the puck a bit.”
We talk a lot about how mature this 21-year-old is, and this is just another example of that. Here’s what Canadiens coach Claude Julien thought of Suzuki’s accountability.
“I think it’s good, because Nick had a very difficult night and he was right that it was his hardest game since the beginning of the season,” he said Thursday night. “When you look at the whole picture and how he’s been playing, it’s going to happen sometimes, and proud athletes aren’t afraid to say it when they don’t have it. That’s already a step forward for him, because I’m convinced he’ll rebound the next game.”
Every player wants the opportunity to rebound next game. From the youngest ones to the most experienced ones, and everyone in between.
Ask 27-year-old Phillip Danault, who got off to a rocky start to the season and struggled to adjust with his ice time being down significantly, his role on the penalty kill reduced because the Canadiens have so many more forwards to use there and all the buzz floating around about his unsettled contract situation.
Danault said on Friday that everything happening at once compounded his struggles.
“When I’m not thinking, that’s when I’m at my best,” Danault added. “I was thinking too much.”
But after being the least used centre on Tuesday, and after an encouraging conversation with Julien following Thursday’s morning skate, Danault was back to just reacting, with two assists and a dominant night in the faceoff circle being a more accurate reflection of who he is versus what we saw over the first half of Montreal’s games.
Danault said Julien didn’t tell him he was going to use him more — he ended up playing close to two minutes more than he did in Tuesday’s win over Vancouver — but the coach did start Danault’s line with Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar and had his finger on the pulse of the game in using them more than any of his other lines at 5-on-5.
As Julien often likes to say, “I call it coaching.”
A big part of coaching is managing the push and pull with a player, and both Danault and Julien were talking about that dynamic on Friday.
Julien said he’s had to poke Danault at times early this season, but he’s also had to encourage him, like he did prior to Thursday’s game.
Danault feels Julien has the proper balance in his approach.
“He’s helped me enormously since I came to Montreal, and he’s an extraordinary coach for me,” the Victoriaville, Que., native said. “He’s had a chance to coach some excellent centres, so he brings that experience for me and the young guys coming. Claude knows how to take it, too. He knows when to push me and when to help me, too. So, he does those things well.”
The words will ring hollow if the actions don’t follow. Julien being tough on Danault and then giving him the pat-on-the-back approach would’ve meant less without the opportunity being presented to Danault to prove himself.
It may seem like a small thing but starting Danault in Thursday’s game was that opportunity. Having Danault’s line jump over the boards more frequently as a reward for how he started was that opportunity.
Which brings us to Carey Price.
We’re not sure if Julien intends to start the goaltender against Ottawa on Saturday after a less-than-satisfactory performance in Thursday’s loss, but we would.
We understand Julien has a plan to keep both Price and backup Jake Allen fresh — to rely on both throughout the season so that Price has his best when it matters most — but Price hasn’t had his best since the season started, and that might have something to do with him not being in the rhythm he’s been accustomed to over the last few years.
Historically, Price has a .923 save percentage after three or more days of rest. But it’s our view that he needs to get some action in to get to a point where that rest is as beneficial as it has been in the past.
When we asked Price if an adjustment was required to the change in frequency of his starts, he deferred.
“Jake’s playing some great hockey right now,” he said after allowing three goals to the Senators. “And when you have a goaltender playing well like that, why not throw him in there? He’s had an excellent work ethic and he’s playing some quality minutes for us, so we’re definitely — especially me — thankful to have him here.”
We interpreted that three ways: 1) Price didn’t want to make an excuse for why his play hasn’t been up to the level he’s capable of so far (he has an .899 save percentage). 2) He particularly didn’t want to use this excuse and come across as selfish. 3) We believe what he’s saying is genuine — that he is appreciative of how Allen is playing and is thankful to have him there for all the reasons the Canadiens believe having a goaltender of Allen’s quality behind Price will be beneficial.
But we don’t see Price being any different than Suzuki or Danault. We bet he’s anxious to get back in the net and be among the Canadiens redeeming themselves in the rubber match against the Senators on Saturday, and we’d give him that opportunity.
We’ll understand if Julien doesn’t in the end. Following Saturday’s game, the Canadiens are off until Wednesday, when Price will likely play against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it would be reasonable for the coach to not want Allen to be sitting from this past Tuesday to next Thursday, when the Edmonton Oilers visit.
But it’s our opinion the net-positive of Price starting and potentially having a confidence-inspiring performance ahead of Wednesday would outweigh the negative of Allen starting Thursday off a bit rusty. And if Price doesn’t rise to the challenge Saturday, then we’d understand Allen taking the net Wednesday instead of Thursday. We think Price would understand, too.