If there is one Montreal Canadiens player who knows about playoff comeback it’s Nick Suzuki. In the middle of his last OHL season, the Owen Sound centreman was traded to the the Guelph Storm, a team loading up for a Memorial Cup push. The super-charged Storm swept the Kitchener Rangers easily in the first round and moved on to Round Two. There, they meet the London Knights, as close to a perennial contender as you will find in the league.
It quickly became clear that Guelph lacked the depth of London. The Knights went up 3-0 in the series, and already diverted their attention toward their Round 3 opponents. But that was counting out Suzuki. The Habs prospect exploded in the next four games, scoring 11 points to lead his team to the reverse sweep, a rare feat.
He did it again in the next round. When Guelph fell down 3-1 to the Saginaw Spirit, Suzuki scored four points in Game 5 to start the comeback. The team finished its run by defeating the regular-season champions, the Ottawa 67’s, by once again applying the same formula. They lost the first couple of games and then launched a comeback.
This particular play from Game 3 against the 67’s encapsulates Suzuki’s playoff performance well.
Last night, we saw that same fire and team-carrying ability from Suzuki on the game-winning goal. After the Philadelphia Flyers game-tying efforts, the centreman shone through the gloom surrounding the Habs. He became the focal point of the attack. He flew up ice, attacked the defence head-on, broke their structure, and allowed Jonathan Drouin to sweep in and take the puck. The winger made a creative pass back to his centreman, a play that reminded everyone of his high-end capabilities and redeemed him for an earlier offside mistake that cost the Habs a goal.
Suzuki received the puck, froze the goalie — a move few would have the presence of mind to make — and scored.
This sequence happened after Suzuki had helped his team retake the lead with a lob pass to Brendan Gallagher on the power play, another bold play that few would attempt.
Add this performance to the playoff-long presentation from the forward, and Suzuki establishes a clear pattern of elevating his game in key moments. It’s not all flash, either. He didn’t fade into the background in between those two decisive plays, he spent his every shift showing strong defensive habits, connecting the attack, making the hard plays in pressured situations, and opening up space for teammates.
Here are the individual Zone Exit stats for Habs' players from Game 5 vs PHI. pic.twitter.com/QPwtY6MXPt— Mikael Nahabedian (@hunterofstats) August 20, 2020
On the tracked stats from Mikael Nahabedian, Suzuki finished with the second-highest percentage of controlled zone entries (Gallagher’s stats were incredible) and outclassed all of his teammates in zone-exit success rate.
Rewatch his goal above, but focus on the start of the play. The goal happened only because Suzuki came down very low to support his defence on the retrieval after the faceoff. It allowed him to swing up with speed and arrive at the perfect time to give an outlet to Drouin on the wall. His drive up-ice also enabled him to escape the backcheck and forced the opposing defencemen to scramble back to their position. Suzuki broke in the offensive zone and the Flyers were left disorganized.
It was not the only interesting transition sequence for Suzuki. I clipped a few more in the first period.
The centreman turned great defensive reads into breakouts, made picks to help his defencemen get more space, and even chained pass-receptions into timely dangles to beat forecheckers and move the play up the ice. At times, the centreman could play slightly more conservatively — his moves could have backfired — but his assurance makes you think he largely controls the situation even when he is surrounded by opposing sticks.
Does the play of Suzuki in Game 5 mean that the Canadiens have harnassed the energy of the Guelph Storm and will now go on a Stanley Cup run? Obviously, no. But it means that the team is not done yet. The play of Suzuki, and that of several other players, suggests that the Habs can count on more game-breaking than previously thought. Maybe they can get them to that ever-exciting Game 7, where anything can happen.