As he rumbled over the opposition blueline, the big man made a slick toe drag around a defender that earned him the most sought-after of Bell Centre compliments – a collective, unrestrained “Oooh.”
It happened in the second period of a game the Montreal Canadiens had no right to win (hands up whoever picked them to beat high-flying Anaheim on Tuesday), and afterward, imposing Habs centre Mike McCarron was as giddy as any fan.
“I don’t know why I did that,” the 6-foot-6 centre said of his fancy dangle. “I’m not even sure where that move came from.”
Across the Habs dressing room, third-year pro Joel Hanley looked vaguely bewildered as he looked back on his two-point effort – in just his second NHL game.
Asked about his first career point, a first-period transition play that led to the opening goal, Hanley said, “I didn’t even realize I got an assist on that until the second period.”
Lest anyone think the Habs youngsters aren’t focusing on what’s happening on the ice, the truth is actually the opposite.
Whether it’s Hanley or McCarron or Darren Dietz or any of the other under-25 injury fill-ins on the team – Montreal has 11 regulars out with various ailments, or 48 per cent of the roster – they are enthralled in the moment.
The central is impression is they are doing so entirely, instinctively and freely.
Now that the season is all but officially lost – Montreal has a less-than-0.1-per-cent chance of making the playoffs – why not?
In some cases the reflexive approach is calculated.
Centre Alex Galchenyuk spent roughly half his shifts on Tuesday playing against Anaheim checker Ryan Kesler and a little less than that against Ryan Getzlaf, the modern prototype of the No. 1 centre.
Asked whether he has any opportunity in games to pick up cues on what the top players do in various areas of the ice, he shook his head and said he’s focused more on what his hockey intuition is telling him.
“Maybe a couple of years ago, when I started in the league, I would watch a little more, but now if you’re spending any time at all thinking about who’s out there against you and what they’re trying to do, they’ve already gone by you,” said the 22-year-old (who was surprised to learn from reporters that coach Michel Therrien had pledged to play him at his natural position for the closing three weeks).
In other situations, the encouragement to just go out and play is situation-driven. Hanley and Dietz were on the ice against the Ducks’ top line in the second period and proved no match – Corey Perry promptly scored.
Those sorts of things aren’t supposed to happen on home ice, where Therrien has the last change.
The stakes, at this point, aren’t high enough for anyone to get reamed out too badly for a blown coverage.
Coaches often play lip service to instinctive hockey – Therrien frequently says he wants his players to play, not think – but the fact is only certain kinds of instincts are tolerated in today’s system-centric, risk-managing NHL.
One need look no further for an example than Montreal defenceman P.K. Subban, who was back practising in a full-contact jersey on Wednesday (he is still feeling the after-effects of a neck injury, and could be out a few days yet).
But the grip has loosened as it’s become apparent the Habs will not be playing in the postseason.
The past two weeks haven’t featured much in the way of message-sending by way of extended stays on the bench. The Habs have moved into evaluation mode, although in fairness the last month of the season is not necessarily the best context to assess progress on the part of young players.
That said, the players seem acutely aware of the old cliché that they are playing for jobs next year.
“Every game is an audition and every shift counts for a lot of younger guys,” winger Lucas Lessio said.
That may actually be true of the 23-year-old, who stands to be a marginal player on a top NHL team.
But the others mostly fall into two categories: lucky-to-be-here (Hanley and Dietz), or on-the-fast-track (McCarron, Sven Andrighetto).
When his team was mired in its hideous December-January swoon (the Habs have been a .500 team since Feb. 6), general manager Marc Bergevin suggested his squad was too focused on the consequences of making mistakes.
The unsparing reality of pro sports is going to intrude regardless; it’s liberating to stop worrying about it.
Just ask the Habs’ cadre of kids.Report Typo/Error