Left to their own devices, most young men eventually mature and find their path – “you’ll be a man, my son” and all that.
That’s fine for Rudyard Kipling, but as Ottawa Senators winger Guillaume Latendresse, who took his first steps at the highest level of professional hockey at the ripe old age of 19, said earlier this season: “nothing makes you grow up like the NHL.”
The buzzwords around the Montreal Canadiens lately has been maturity and seasoning, usually uttered in connection with the Habs’ brilliant 23-year-old defenceman, P.K. Subban. The blueliner has now had a hand in his team’s last nine power-play tallies and leads all NHL defencemen with seven goals, including one in Montreal’s 4-3 win over Ottawa Wednesday.
But there’s another 23-year-old in the Habs’ lineup who is also growing into his role.
That would be Lars Eller.
The Danish centre is making people forget a certain Slovakian goaltender for whom he was traded. Against the Ottawa Senators on Wednesday he was the Habs’ best forward by a healthy margin.
He forced turnovers, he killed penalties, he dangled, he scored a goal – his fourth giving him six points in his last seven games – and put a slick move on Ottawa’s rookie goalie Robin Lehner to decide the shootout.
Eller has emerged as a two-way force this season, and Wednesday’s was perhaps his most commanding performance; try as they might, the Senators couldn’t get the puck off his stick.
He added some bulk in the off-season, and became a father for the first time, but credits working with sports psychologists both in Montreal and in Sweden for his progress on the ice.
“It can’t hurt to have an extra couple of pounds on your body, but the most important thing is up here,” he said, pointing at his head, “no doubt about it.”
When he benched Eller earlier this season, coach Michel Therrien said he expected to see more intensity from the youngster; he has.
“(Teammate Brendan) Gallagher’s, what, five-eight? Muscle’s not everything . . . the most important part for me is the mental part, the confidence,” Eller said. “It’s a natural part of growing, of experience.”
With the triumph over the Sens, the Habs have now won four in a row, thanks in no small part to their kids.
Gallagher was once again at his irritating best, knocking in his eighth goal of the season from inside the goalmouth while Ottawa defencemen Chris Phillips and Sergei Gonchar did their best impressions of angry loggers working with dull axes.
Linemate Max Pacioretty’s shot had already squeezed through Lehner when he flailed at it – “that was pretty bad, eh?” he giggled.
Gallagher was around the net all night, and spent a fair amount of time sprawled in the blue paint after having been roughhoused to the ice by one Senator or another.
“I’ve been playing that way since I was a little guy, even my minor hockey coaches told me that’s how I had to play to have success,” he said.
Gallagher has showed uncommon poise in his rookie NHL campaign, and while his contributions – including those on Wednesday – have been important, another member of the Habs’ youth brigade is having an even bigger impact.
Accused by some hockey pundits during a brief contract holdout of being a “me-first” player, Subban has answered his critics with the best hockey of his career.
Few defencemen in the league can match Subban’s mix of physical play, defensive skills, skating ability and offence (perhaps Norris favourite Kris Letang).
He’s also changed his attitude and approach by playing more conservatively when carrying the puck, and shooting more intelligently.
For another, Subban, a noted media darling, barely steps before the cameras any more.
After his goal-and-an-assist performance, in which he played a game-high 30:52, the first words out of his mouth were: “As a team . . .”
His remarks lasted all of about 2:44, the first person, singular, pronoun was uttered no more than three or four times – all of them in a context where he criticized his play.
It’s a change that has impressed his teammates – defensive partner Josh Gorges said “he’s learning that the more you do things for the other guys, it comes back to you ten-fold.”
Even Therrien, who is plainly wary of heaping too much praise on Subban, said his young rearguard is playing the best hockey of his career and “he’s getting better and better.”
Subban’s performance was part of a broader picture that will cheer fans of both teams involved.
This was a night that belonged to the kids.
Run down the list: Ottawa’s 19-year-old Mika Zibanejad (a goal), 22-year-old teammate Jacob Silvferberg (a sweet assist), 22-year-old Habs winger Gabriel Dumont (an assist).
Or take the 21-year-old Ottawa Lehner, who parried 42 of 45 shots against the Eastern Conference leaders in their own barn on Wednesday – even if benefited from good luck of the sort that saw 19-year-old Alex Galchenyuk’s wicked wrist shot clank off the cross bar late in the third.
Each of the aforementioned is filling in for a higher-priced veteran (except for Galchenyuk) and each has performed brilliantly. In Montreal’s case for an over-achieving first-place team that entered Wednesday’s game on an 11-1-3 tear, and in Ottawa’s case for a club that just refuses to fall apart and let go of its playoff position despite crippling injuries.
As Ottawa coach Paul MacLean said of his youthful team before the game, “all we think of is it’s an opportunity for someone to show us how dumb we are” for not bringing them up sooner.
Senators captain Daniel Alfredsson said goaltending depth remains his team’s backbone, but allowed that a new spirit of stubbornness has taken root with the injuries to the team’s top centre (Jason Spezza), top defenceman (incumbent Norris winner Erik Karlsson) and starting goalie (Craig Anderson).
“We try to hang in there, and just not go away. I think when you get some results, you think ‘we can do this’,” he said.
Add in the fact that Ottawa’s youngsters are made to feel at home by the likes of Colin Greening and Zack Smith – recent grads of the AHL Binghamton Senators – and you have a team with a chip on its shoulder.
Just when you think the wheels are wobbling to the point of falling off, the wagon keeps rolling.
“I love that people can write us off like that, it’s just that much more motivation for us as a squad, as a young group to keep striving for more success. We’ve got a lot of great depth in this organization,” said defenceman Marc Methot.
The Habs opened the score after some nice work behind the net from Dumont – who ferreted out a puck and tried to stuff it past Robin Lehner.
Eller was on hand to swipe the rebound into the net at 7:02 of the first, the assist was Dumont’s first NHL point.
“It didn’t really occur to me at the time, I was just happy we could take the lead . . . I just wanted to be on the ice for a goal for our team, I hadn’t to that point,” said the native of tiny Degelis, Que., who like Gallagher is a scrappy, undersized player.
Just over three minutes later, it was time for the Senators’ youngsters to step to the fore in the waning moments of a power-play.
Silvferberg out-witted a pair of Montreal defenders on the side boards and threw a no-look pass directly to Zibanejad, who rifled a pretty wrist shot past Carey Price.
The Habs doubled their lead on a second-period power-play through Gallagher, and made it 3-1 at 17:11 when Subban’s shot went through Tomas Plekanec’s screen and beat Lehner to the stick side.
Anyone who was under the misapprehension that would be enough to make the Senators go away was swiftly corrected.
After Alexei Emelin lowered the boom on an unsuspecting Eric Gryba after he had dished the puck – the big Russian might expect a call from the league on that one – Alfredsson made it a 3-2 game with 1.5 seconds to play in the frame.
The Senators picked up where they’d left off in the third, with Patrick Wiercioch making Andrei Markov look old and creaky in a four-on-four situation, faking a slap-shot to freeze Markov before snapping a wrister through Price’s legs.
Ottawa wouldn’t ultimately succeed in pulling out the win, but notwithstanding Lehner’s anger afterward at losing his third straight shootout – “they played it as average, I bit like it was awesome, it sucked” – there is much to be encouraged about.