The win would have been nice, but we can’t say that the Montreal Canadiens’ lineup didn’t live up to expectations. They did — for the most part. We knew what brand of hockey the team would play going into the season, the same pressure-heavy, fast-paced, counter-attack style they employed in the previous ones, but on overdrive — bigger, quicker, meaner.
Montreal put the Toronto Maple Leafs on their heels for long periods of time. Even when it looked like the tide could turn, the Canadiens continued to come at the opposition in relentless waves, crashing against the back lines of the Leafs, stealing pucks, and generating rapid scoring chances off those turnovers.
Some untimely and even bizarre errors cost the team the game (the refs generally don’t make perfect slot passes with their chests), but once the sting of the loss washes away, what is left is a great sense of possibility. This wasn’t the team’s best form. Systems will tighten up, chemistry will form, and players will find their stride.
Don’t get me wrong, there is still a lot of work ahead for the coaching staff, especially on the defensive side of the game, and particularly with the new elements. Even Alexander Romanov, who looked as confident as ever in his first steps in the NHL and whose main strength is defensive rotations, had to be guided toward his check on a few occasions. It will take time for the newcomers to follow the Habs’ rhythm, and even many of the core returnees will remain prone to youthful mistakes.
But not Nick Suzuki.
I have to admit I wasn’t sure that Suzuki would take full ownership of the number-one centre role this season. Maybe I’m conservative. Phillip Danault looked like a safe choice to occupy that spot for the foreseeable future, his experience giving him a legitimate edge on Suzuki when it comes to facing some of the best players in the world. On top of that, the Danault line has a long record of success. They earned the trust of Claude Julien and their ice time. But if this first showing is any indication — and the Leafs are a pretty good test — they will soon be eclipsed by Suzuki, Josh Anderson, and Jonathan Drouin.
While both Anderson and Drouin misread defensive plays at times, they provide constant defensive effort. Yes, even Drouin. His pressure away from the puck has improved since his arrival in Montreal. Where before he would draw large circles in the defensive zone waiting for breakouts, now he stops and starts, dashing toward opponents to rush their plays.
Of course, Suzuki is the glue that holds this line together, or any line he pilots for that matter. What is becoming truly exceptional about his game is his ability to generate offence from defensive positions. It currently separates him from the other centres on this team. Danault plays with an abundance of caution, missing opportunities to beat opponents off the mark, and Kotkaniemi’s enthusiasm, while a great quality, still has to be reined in a little. Romanov had to rush back to defend a three-on-one after skating the length of the ice as the Finnish centreman joined him on the adventure instead of covering for the defenceman. (Not to take too much away from Kotkaniemi’s performance as he showed many new interesting elements.)
Through his positioning, Suzuki plays both defence and offence at the same time. He makes those F3 reads or high rotations to cover for teammates, but does it in ways to support the attack. Like in the following play where he sees his defenceman pinch down the wall on the opposite side of the ice. He moves high to compensate, but stills sets up in space as a pass option, using the width of the ice to stretch the offence. He doesn’t extend too far from the play, choosing a distance that he can cover with his skating if the play goes south.
When it does, Suzuki strides hard, moves ahead of his check, and when a pass comes to the opponent, he slips in between the opposing body and the puck, stopping the play. Many players his age would only use their stick to knock the puck away or tie up the opponent, but Suzuki is growing more and more physical. He wants to win inside positioning on the puck to prevent opponents from accessing it entirely — a safer, more direct, and effective approach.
There was another nice defensive sequence from him earlier in the game. F1 on the backcheck, he surveyed a battle on the strong-side wall and saw Mitch Marner bump the puck to a rushing Auston Matthews and the shoulder-check of the Leafs scorer toward the other side of the ice, where Joe Thorton was coming in for a backdoor play. Immediately, Suzuki registered the threat and blocked the pass.
A second later, he picked up the disc and moved it wide to Toffoli, before skating ahead of his check, inviting a long bank pass which turned into a dangerous shot on net.
And one last clip.
This one encompassed Suzuki’s performance: his ability to instantly pick up his check, support his defencemen in battles, and create the zone exit with a controlled, timely swing up ice. Once the play enters the offensive end, Suzuki moved above the puck in case Drouin lost it on the wall, and screened an incoming defender to afford his linemate a bit more space before attacking the net ahead of the point shot.
The centreman doesn’t have the range or the burning acceleration of some of his counterparts, but his strong habits and anticipation more than make up for it. On Wednesday night especially, every time the play would change direction, it felt like Suzuki was already two steps ahead of everyone else.