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The road back to the NHL begins again for Michael McCarron

The Canadiens’ 2013 first-round pick makes his season debut for the Laval Rocket.

NHL: Washington Capitals at Montreal Canadiens Eric Bolte-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to generate all that many impressions as a fourth-line player in hockey, but time and repetitions are precious for Michael McCarron at this stage of his career.

“I didn’t play much. I don’t know what else you want me to say,” McCarron said after his first game of the season. “Played a couple quick shifts in the first then I’m sitting [in the penalty box] for seven minutes. It was a weird game tonight.”

McCarron picked up a fighting major and a boarding penalty early on while playing bottom-six minutes alongside Dale Weise and Michael Pezzetta in his team’s 5-4 shootout win over the Providence Bruins Wednesday night.

“I thought it was a good team win tonight. Obviously we had that big lead early in the game,” he said. “You can’t take your foot off the gas. We let them back into the game. It’s a good learning curve for us early in the season. Thankfully we came out with two points.”

The 24-year-old is about to embark on his fifth season with the Montreal Canadiens’ American Hockey League affiliate. Since his draft year in 2013, he’s been trying to crack the lineup as a regular as an imposing body.

When the national anthems concluded, McCarron was already prepared for the opening faceoff. The hulking 6’6”, 232-pound centre was hunched over in position for the puck drop at centre ice as his linemates continued to skate around and gather themselves prior to the referee’s whistle. It didn’t matter that he lost that faceoff. He was back on the ice for a meaningful hockey game for the first time in what felt like forever.

“I was pretty excited. I haven’t played in a while,” he said. “Definitely [got] that good feeling coming back; being with the boys in the locker room.”

Before his shoulder injury, McCarron was in the midst of what should have been a career year. The forward has seven goals and 21 points in 34 games before his season ended early, and his future with the Canadiens was thrown in doubt.

The Canadiens eventually decided they’d bring him back on a one-year ‘prove-it’ deal during this past off-season, but he couldn’t even make an impression during training camp because of a groin injury. Now, he returns as part of his team’s leadership contingent. The Rocket named him as an alternate captain a day before his first game of the year.

“I’m 100% right now and just need to continue to build off this game,” he said.

After being on the ice for the game’s first goal — a nifty tip by Pezzetta — McCarron’s left shoulder was put to the test. Following a hit on Bruins forward Peter Cehlarik along the boards, McCarron then exchanged fisticuffs with Providence defenceman Chris Breen.

He picked up a fighting major and an added two minutes for an initial boarding call. Joe Cox sat in for his teammate’s minor, but McCarron ultimately had to sit for seven minutes.

“Yeah, [Breen] kind of had to do it,” McCarron said. “Still not going to back down from anyone. Yeah, I had that shoulder surgery, but the boys got a little bit of momentum from that.

“You definitely don’t want one of their guys challenging you and you back off in your own building,” he added. “It’d be a little bit embarrassing. But, (I’m) playing that role right now and you kind of have to answer the bell.”

“It wasn’t an easy game for him,” head coach Joël Bouchard said. “Sometimes you need to protect the player, too. It’s a lot; he hasn’t played since December,

“There’s two more games left this week. I told him that I know he wants a lot. We want a lot for him, too. But sometimes you have to evaluate the situation. That’s my job.”

Some may still feel there is uncertainty over whether his future lies with the Canadiens organization, and if other players have truly jumped him. But Bouchard feels that doesn’t matter.

“He doesn’t have to worry about the other guys,” Bouchard said. “He has to worry about himself. You are your worst enemy. You get up in the morning. The mirror is your worst enemy. Nobody else. Doesn’t need to look left or look right. He has to look to himself.”

McCarron disagrees with any suggestions that he’s fallen too far down the depth chart to be in the plans for the NHL team.

“Yeah, I don’t believe that,” McCarron said. “I don’t think like that. I just don’t feel that way.”

Wednesday night’s game was McCarron’s first since December 29, 2018 — a 291-day span — when the shoulder injury ended his 2018-19 season early.

“I don’t think I played that well tonight,” McCarron admitted. “I hadn’t played in a while; didn’t get a lot of touches tonight. I didn’t play much. That happens when you haven’t played in a while. I was playing bad. That’s what happens. I got to learn from that and take it one game at a time.”