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Nick Suzuki’s will drives Canadiens to bounce-back win over Senators

It’s 1-1 between the Ottawa Senators and Montreal Canadiens during a second period that’s not going particularly well for Montreal, and Nick Suzuki has just taken a rush up the ice when the puck gets turned over in the Ottawa end.

Suzuki takes a sharp cut south, gets going in a full sprint to catch up to the play and arrives just in front of Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen to lift Chris Tierney’s stick and take away what would’ve been the Senators’ best scoring chance of the first 30 minutes.

It’s a subtle play, one of the dozens Suzuki customarily makes in any given game. But making it after he won a faceoff, blocked a shot, rushed up the ice and had to rush back offers you a window into the competitive drive of this 21-year-old kid.

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We’re usually talking about Suzuki’s craftiness, his skill, and the tantalizing moves that had him enter Saturday’s matinee as Montreal’s top-scoring centre (11 points in 11 games). But he does tend to get undersold on the will element, and in this game—a 2-1 win built much more on will than skill for a Canadiens side that didn’t play its best—it’s that element of Suzuki’s game which shone brightest.

Spotlight on his play on Tierney; on the first-period battles with former teammate Mike Reilly, who knocked Suzuki down twice in one shift but didn’t get the better of him on the whole sequence; on the way he beat Artem Zub to a loose puck to generate the rebound Josh Anderson buried his eighth goal of the season on for the game-winner; and on the two faceoffs he drew back in the final seconds of play—one of them with the Canadiens down two men, with Ben Chiarot looking on from the penalty box and the Senators icing an extra attacker while goaltender Matt Murray sat on the bench. This was all a direct contrast to how Suzuki played in Montreal’s 3-2 loss to the Senators on Thursday.

The London, Ont., native played a rare bad game, said afterwards that he fought the puck, struggled reading the play, got lost in his own zone and got beat clean in the faceoff circle.

Canadiens coach Claude Julien heard Suzuki’s comments before making his own that night, and then he said he was certain his young centreman would bounce back.

“(I) said that the other day that I’m sure he’s going to bounce back,” reminded Julien after Saturday’s win.

Why was he so sure?

“Just knowing the individual, his character and what we’ve seen from him in the past,” Julien explained.

No mention of Suzuki’s skill there. No mention of his vision, or his playmaking ability. It’s about will, when a player digs in to make a big defensive stop. It’s about will, when a player who’s lost 11 of 15 faceoffs gets into the circle late in the game and pulls back the two you need most.

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Phillip Danault, who had won 52 per cent of his faceoffs but was struggling on his weak side said he told Suzuki to take those last two because they were on the right-hander’s strong side.

“I told Suz to be a little hungrier,” Danault said.

Suzuki obliged. And he was hungrier all game.

Not everyone in a white sweater was. Julien felt a few players on the Canadiens didn’t quite push their chips into the middle, to the point that he felt the need to intervene after the second period to demand more of a commitment.

It’s what was needed with the way the Senators were playing.

“I thought their D were doing a great job of staying on top of us,” said Suzuki. “We had a lot of success with bringing out the puck earlier this season, and in these couple of games we struggled a little bit. They were right on top of us. So we’ve gotta do a better job of finding ways to move the puck out of our end, and you’ve gotta give them credit sometimes.”

We’ll give the Senators the share they deserve—they out-shot Montreal 27-14 over the final 40 minutes and played a simple, hard game that belied their 2-8-1 record coming into Saturday’s action at Canadian Tire Centre. The rest goes to Suzuki, Anderson, Jeff Petry, who scored the opening goal for Montreal, and Allen.

The Montreal goaltender was doing hockey’s version of a shirshasana (that’s Yoga speak for a headstand) in the crease, coming up with 34 saves for his fourth win in five starts.

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We suspected it was Julien’s plan to start Allen—the goaltender confirmed he was told he was getting the nod 48 hours before puck drop—and argued on Friday that Julien should alter it to get Carey Price into a rhythm and give him a chance to redeem himself from an off-night Thursday, especially with the Canadiens idle for the next three days.

But the coach stuck his guns, and has to be credited for doing so.

“We knew we had a good goaltender since the first day we got him,” Julien said of Allen, who’s sporting a .940 save percentage. “I know that we don’t have a busy schedule at the moment, but we’re able to keep our two goalies playing and keep them as fresh and as sharp as possible. It’s certain that as we move along there’s going to be more games where you’ll see that this (strategy) will be fruitful for both goalies.”

Price will surely get his shot at redemption Wednesday versus the Toronto Maple Leafs. He’ll have to be much better in a game that will require many other players on the Canadiens to redeem themselves after two relatively causal performances against a much weaker Senators team.

It’s also a game that will present Suzuki the opportunity to keep things rolling because he bounced back with one of the most competitive efforts in his short time in a Canadiens uniform.

Suzuki showed his maturity and his poise on Saturday.

“His character, as well,” said Danault. “Suz has been awesome for us so far. He works hard. He knows when he’s playing good or not, which gives him really another step, and he also can push himself to another level.”

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