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Suzuki vs. Malkin: Sleight of hand and disappearing acts feature in second-line matchup

A Penguins veteran and a Canadiens rookie went deep into their bag of tricks in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Qualifiers.

Montreal Canadiens v Pittsburgh Penguins Photo by Andre Ringuette/Freestyle Photo/Getty Images

The Montreal Canadiens’ youth continues to step up in these mid-summer contests — Nick Suzuki especially. I analyzed his deception in depth in my article following the exhibition game, and in many other articles in the past, but I can never resist talking more about it.

His goal in Game 1 was another masterful act of misdirection. His closed blade and his shoulders indicated a short-side shot to Matt Murray, who moved slightly in that direction, and then raised his blocker-arm shoulder up to cover the top corner, but at the last second Suzuki pushed his top hand away from his body, opened up his blade, and sent the puck flying to the top of the other side of the net.

Suzuki also uses deception in his defensive game at times. He did great work on the penalty kill in this game, even generating some dangerous offence with Joel Armia. One of their two-on-ones originated from a pass interception immediately following a rush from the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Watch Suzuki’s head on the play. As he backchecks, he shoulder-checks behind him to locate an attacker, but he doesn’t immediately place his stick to deny a pass to that opponent. He reads the movement of Sidney Crosby, who is carrying the puck on the opposite wall. As soon as he sees the Pens’ captain engage a passing motion, Suzuki puts his stick down in the lane. He catches the feed and skates the other way.

What makes me think he delayed his stick placement to invite Crosby to make that pass is that he first hesitated. He clearly saw the play develop, but seemed to restrain himself from blocking it pre-emptively. He instead went for the steal — a bit riskier, but he got a great offensive opportunity out of it.

The fact that head coach Mike Sullivan looked to move Evgeni Malkin away from his matchup with Suzuki is a compliment to the 20-year-old forward. Not that he was handling the head-to-head that well — Malkin created the bulk of the offence when on the ice versus Suzuki — but Sullivan still made efforts to match his 6’3” centreman with silky-smooth hands against Jesperi Kotkaniemi, Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen, a trio with two great, albeit smaller, defensive forwards.

That line will have to watch out for the talents of Malkin. Despite his imposing frame, he tends to easily hide from coverage as he foresees puck rotations and anticipates pockets of space. The Habs almost conceded a goal when they forgot him on the other side of the ice.

It isn’t always the job of the centreman to attach himself to the centreman of the opposing team — as players rotate in the defensive zone, they all switch responsibilities — but Montreal’s pivots should all pay extra attention to Malkin to counter his tricks. Suzuki and Kotkaniemi are especially susceptible to falling for them due to their inexperience.

Still, despite many close calls, the Pens’ second-line centre finished with no points. That’s definitely mission accomplished for a first game.