After the Montreal Canadiens’ 4-0 win over the Edmonton Oilers on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre, Dominique Ducharme said that he knew his team would come out with energy after a week off, but he was less certain about their execution.
On the first shift of the game, Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Paul Byron executed a perfect give-and-go to put the Canadiens up 1-0 18 seconds into the game. Following a power play after the Oilers unsuccessfully challenged the goal, the next shift saw Lehkonen finish at the side of the net to put the Canadiens up 2-0 after less than four minutes.
It’s the latest development that makes Ducharme’s job of picking 12 forwards both an agonizing decision and an easy one. It’s easy because there may not be a wrong answer, it’s agonizing because there may not be a right one.
With the additions of Eric Staal and Cole Caufield to the organization, plus a team of players on the Laval Rocket producing (when they are healthy), the competition isn’t limited to the forwards on the roster and the taxi squad.
“This is the NHL,” Byron said after the game. “Your job is on the line every day. Every day there’s a guy pushing in the minors. Every day there’s a new draft pick who’s pushing to get on the team. We signed Cole [Caufield], we traded for Eric [Staal]. We already had guys sitting out who were really good NHL players.”
The Canadiens were a team built to win, and to have plans in place in the event of injuries or illness. Michael Frolik likely never thought he would be playing his first NHL game in late March, but the situation the Canadiens brought him in for has come to the forefront. The fact that he was there when the team needed him after several months is a feature, not a bug.
“Times like tonight where you’re missing two guys, to have two guys step in and play good minutes for the team, reliable minutes, it’s huge for our team,” Byron said. “We talked about our depth at the start of the year, everyone embracing that, believing in their role, believing in the system, believing in the team. That’s just the mentality and everyone works every day to be the best pro they can. It makes coming to work fun every day.”
Of the 12 forwards in Tuesday’s lineup, six have been healthy scratches. Three of them cleared waivers. On defence, three of the six defenders have been rotated out of the lineup.
With Tyler Toffoli working his way back from injury, and Staal in quarantine, there will likely be more opportunities for these players this week to show why they should be in the lineup. Sometimes even a good performance may not be enough, but everyone being aware of the situation and continuing to pull in the right direction will help the Canadiens get through the tough schedule that is coming up.
Playing with Jesperi Kotkaniemi is a great opportunity for Byron and Lehkonen given how the young centre has been playing and on Tuesday they took advantage of it.