Canadiens accept GM’s challenge and show something that bodes well for their future

This was probably wishful thinking from Montreal Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes in the immediate aftermath of trading away one of his better players, a significant voice in the dressing room, for nothing that would help his team win games in the short term.

He had to say something after dealing Sean Monahan to the Winnipeg Jets for a 2024 first-round pick and a conditional third-round pick in 2027, removing an important centre from his lineup and replacing him with, well, nothing for now. That first-round pick could allow the Canadiens to trade for a player who could help them soon, but it won’t be soon enough to help the players on the team right now.

So, the Canadiens arrived in Washington, D.C., to face the Capitals on Tuesday in their first game coming out of their bye week and the All-Star break, with Nick Suzuki, Jake Evans, Brandon Gignac and Lucas Condotta playing centre. Not exactly a murderers’ row.

But here was an opportunity for Hughes’ wish to come true, at least for one night, this night, the Canadiens’ first game without Monahan and their first game after Hughes waved the white flag on what all his players were hoping for, which was to make a push for the playoffs, as unrealistic as that was to any rational human being examining their situation.

“I think that’s part of a process of a group maturing and growing, and … it’s part of a young group taking ownership of their future and of this team,” Hughes said Friday after pulling off the Monahan trade and pulling the necessary strings to get exactly what he wanted for him in return.

That process Hughes was referring to meant players who know they are part of the future in Montreal taking a bigger role, not allowing the gutting of their lineup to impact their ability to compete, showing why they are part of the core and the future of this team.

This was only one game, but beating the Capitals 5-2 on Tuesday showed that perhaps Hughes’ wishful thinking wasn’t so far-fetched.

It would be easy to look at Nick Suzuki scoring twice in 57 seconds in the first period as an example of him taking that ownership, or Juraj Slafkovský scoring twice in the third period to put the game away as another perfect example of what Hughes was hoping for. And it wouldn’t be wrong, either. Suzuki, Slafkovský and Cole Caufield were back together after a few weeks apart, and they led the way, three players who are most definitely part of the future of this team.

Before the game, Slafkovský told reporters in Washington what he expected from being reunited with the two players he was drafted to play with, and it couldn’t have been more prescient.

“We just want to play good hockey,” he said. “Being first line, we need to do something out there, and that’s what we’ll try to do.”

But there was also this nugget from 2022’s No. 1 pick when he was asked about facing a team fighting to make the playoffs and how the level of play will thus go up a notch coming out of the break.

“I mean, we are still trying to fight for a playoff spot,” he said, matter-of-factly. “So we will fight too, and we will bring another level too, for sure.”

That’s what taking ownership of your future and your team looks like. If you are Hughes or coach Martin St. Louis, you don’t want to hear anything different from Slafkovský. To have him go out and score twice in the third to ice the game made those words all the more meaningful.

His dad, at least, seemed to appreciate the effort.

But more than the goals, Slafkovský’s game was defined by two plays he made that resulted in Suzuki’s goals, though they didn’t earn him a point. They were plays that showed his continued growth more than the impressive shots he pulled off to score in the third period.

The first was when Slafkovský got on his horse as soon as the Canadiens lost the puck to get back and pressure Capitals winger Beck Malenstyn. That pressure set off a chain reaction that led Malenstyn to put his exit pass to Nicolas Aubé-Kubel in his skates, which was a contributing factor to Aubé-Kubel’s turning the puck over to Caufield — who also deserves credit for being in a good defensive position — and then Caufield setting up Suzuki with a perfect saucer pass to give the Canadiens the lead.

The second was a faceoff play when Slafkovský first ran interference on Alex Ovechkin to prevent him from getting out on Arber Xhekaj to pressure the shot, then tied up Joel Edmundson in front to prevent him from getting in the shooting lane, resulting in Suzuki’s second goal in less than a minute.

Slafkovský did not get a point on either goal but made plays that allowed those goals to happen. These are the types of plays where he has shown the most growth this season, little details that don’t show up on the scoresheet, details he learned, in part, from watching the now-departed Monahan play. It was only fitting that Slafkovský got rewarded with two goals of his own in the third period, the first two-goal game of his NHL career, giving him five goals and two assists in his past eight games.

“You can see the confidence he has now in his shot,” Jake Evans said, “and both of them were total snipes.”

“He’s working on his shot every day,” St. Louis told reporters. “So, I’m not surprised, but it’s nice to see him getting rewarded with something he’s been working hard at.”

As for Caufield, his pass to Suzuki on the first Canadiens goal was impressive, but this might have been a better reflection of how his game has evolved this season because it came deep in his defensive zone:

It didn’t result in a zone exit, but it should have, and it showed a side of Caufield’s game he has been working on. As was this, with Caufield hustling back hard to his own zone, assuring Kaiden Guhle he could aggressively snuff out this Capitals entry attempt because he saw Caufield was there in support:

These are the types of things the Canadiens should be watching for in the coming weeks, far more so than the wins and losses. Yes, this was a significant win, a sign the Canadiens will not give up in their pursuit of a playoff spot even if their front office has, and that is commendable. But the victory came on the back of their top line producing four goals, their top line did a lot of the little things that lead to wins, and No. 1 goalie Sam Montembeault allowed the Canadiens to survive a second period in which they were dominated by the Capitals — all factors that bode well for the immediate and long-term future.

But perhaps the most encouraging sign is they didn’t allow a forward-thinking trade by their front office to diminish what they are attempting to accomplish in the present, which is also something Hughes perhaps wishfully predicted when he traded Monahan.

“One thing we’ve seen from our group since I got here, whether it’s through trades or injuries, they’ve shown us they have a certain resiliency and they deal well with adversity,” Hughes said Friday. “In Sean’s case, they knew it was a possibility he would be traded. I have full confidence that our group will continue pushing forward. They know what we’re trying to do and what we’re trying to build here in Montreal.”

In their first opportunity to do so, they showed it Tuesday in Washington.

(Photo: Patrick Smith / Getty Images)

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