CALGARY – It is just over four-and-a-half minutes into the third period of a seesaw battle against the Calgary Flames that Montreal Canadiens center Nick Suzuki makes a play that typifies just how good of a player he’s becoming and how exponentially fast his game will continue to grow under coach Martin St. Louis.
That he makes it 44 seconds into a shift that’s already seen him up and down the ice, washed in Montreal’s end for much of it by Calgary’s potent top line of Elias Lindholm, Johnny Gaudreau and Matthew Tkachuk, is a part of the magic.
But it’s the thinking behind it that’s Suzuki’s real trick. His anticipation allows him to steal the puck just inside his own blue line. He charges down the ice into a one-on-one with Noah Hanifin and, with the middle blocked off by a backchecking Gaudreau, Suzuki deceptively cuts inside and then slips the pick through his moving feet as he pushes back to the outside. He then curls back up towards the faceoff dot in Calgary’s end and completes a pass to Mike Hoffman as he’s being checked to the ice.
From there, Hoffman sets Ben Chiarot up for the goal that ties the game 3-3 and comes just about 16 minutes before Chiarot wins it in overtime to stop Calgary’s bid for a franchise-record 12th win in a row on home ice.
Patient play by Hoffman, who also scored to put the Canadiens up 4-3 just before Lindholm sent this one to overtime. But he wouldn’t have had a chance of making it without the ones Suzuki made before it.
Shortly after taking over as Canadiens coach on Feb. 9, St. Louis said that it’s the smart players who will excel most within the concepts he preaches. Suzuki, who’s got some genius in him, has been proving his theory with each passing day.
And listening to the 22-year-old describe what he was thinking as his legs grew heavy on that third-period sequence is just a sample of it.
“We’ve talked about that as a team,” Suzuki said. “That’s something that Marty’s been preaching is if you’re by yourself, just try to bide your time for your linemates to come help you. And I knew guys would be coming hard off the bench and I just had to find a way to manage my time there and make a play.”
He made many in this game—most of them great—and finished with a goal and two assists. He also had a team-leading six shots on net, eight attempts total, and played 23:51 over 30 shifts.
“It was the best game I’ve seen from Nick Suzuki, and I’m not saying that because he’s played bad ones,” said St. Louis. “But tonight, he took another step against a big team. It was a really big challenge, and he was a leader tonight.”
“He took a bite out of a big team tonight, a really good team,” St. Louis added. “He didn’t dip his toe in trying to test the water; he just dove right in. And that’s what you want from your key players. He was tough to play against on both sides.”
The Canadians were in general. They went down 3-1 and charged back to 3-3, they allowed Lindholm to tie the game with 28 seconds left and still found a way to win it in overtime. They played hard, blocked 15 shots and killed three penalties.
Andrew Hammond improved to 3-0 as a Montreal Canadiens, making 30 saves. Chiarot came up with huge goals and an impressive defensive game despite taking a puck in the face early that led to having his chin stitched up.
But this was Suzuki’s show. Up mostly against Calgary’s best line of the night—and its best defensive line on most nights—of Mikael Backlund, Andrew Mangiapane and Blake Coleman, and having to face the top defensive duo of Hanifin and Rasmus Anderson, he dominated.
Even strength, penalty kill, power play, he was all over it. And when Jake Evans went down with an upper-body injury in the second period, there was Suzuki taking double shifts in his place.
“That’s a big-time game,” said Chiarot. “I think we’ve seen over the years, now that he’s played in the playoffs, in big games he shows up. And that’s probably my favorite thing about him is he’s a gamer and he shows up in the big moments. And that’s hard to find, especially in elite players; you’ve got a guy with that kind of skill and maturity, and then on top of it he shows up when it matters the most. That’s why I think he’ll be a leader for this team for a long time.”
Suzuki’s growing quickly into the top one on this team.
And his work under St. Louis has been his most impressive stint this season. Nine of his 37 points on the have come in the 10 games St. Louis has coached. And six of those nine have come on the road, where Suzuki had previously struggled.
The growth is tangible, and there’s more of it coming.
“He just continues to get better all the time,” said Chiarot earlier in the day. “Even when he first came in, he was full of confidence and really mature for a young guy. So, as he gets older and stronger, I think that’s the only thing that he needs is a little bit of age and (physical) maturity to grow into his body and get a little bit stronger and a little bit of training into him and the league will be his to be had. He’s got all the tools to be a top-end player.”