MONTREAL – The silver lining to the Montreal Canadiens’ playoff disappointment so far in the NHL post-season has been the valuable experience being gained by their young players.
Montreal trails the Boston Bruins 3-0 heading into Wednesday night’s contest, but Canadiens rookies Matt D’Agostini, Yannick Weber and Greg Stewart have all enjoyed their first taste of NHL playoff action in the opening-round series.
With veteran defencemen Andrei Markov, Mathieu Schneider, Patrice Brisebois and Francis Bouillon as well as forwards Robert Lang and Alex Tanguay all out with injuries, it has given the youngsters valuable playing time they would not have earned had the team been healthy.
“We began as the underdog because that’s the spot that we earned,” coach and general manager Bob Gainey said Wednesday. “The Bruins have played really hard and really well and have given us very few freebies.
“They’re challenging us to improve our play. We’ve got a much younger team with guys like Brisebois out and with some of the young guys who are in there. It’s great experience for our team. We’re seeing great competition at the best time of the year by players who are going to be playing here for years. We should savour it.”
Other young players like brothers Sergei and Andrei Kostitsyn, goalies Carey Price and Jaroslav Halak and defenceman Ryan O’Byrne were with the club last season when it was the Eastern Conference’s top seed but needed seven games to down the eighth-ranked Bruins in the first round. The Canadiens then lost in five games to Philadelphia.
The Bruins say it was their play against Montreal in the first round last spring, when they were down 3-1 but came back to force and decisive Game 7, that helped launch their dominant 2008-09 campaign.
A year ago, forwards Milan Lucic, David Krejci and Phil Kessel were learning about playoff hockey and now are key contributors for Boston. Byron Bitz, Blake Wheeler and Matt Hunwick, who was injured in the series opener, are getting the same experience this year.
“What better place to play on the road than Montreal?” asked Bruins coach Claude Julien. “Talk about having to learn and learn quick.
“We had to rely on that number of young players because of our injuries, so those guys had to play a much bigger role than any young guys would ever usually play. All those things helped our guys grow and mature and be better players and obviously, that’s helped us a lot in being able to handle what’s going on right now.”
It didn’t always go smoothly.
The Montreal rookies have been in and out of the lineup, tasting the thrill of playoff hockey and the sting of being made a healthy scratch.
The same thing happened to Boston last spring, when the under-performing Kessel was pulled from the lineup.
“The fact that I have the support of upper management to do what it takes to make everybody accountable has helped me do my job,” said Julien. “It wasn’t easy making Phil Kessel a healthy scratch, but when you have the support of management, and we know we’re doing it for the better of the team and to hopefully make the player better, those decision are a lot easier.”
And it appears to have paid off.
Kessel rebounded with 36 goals this season. Krejci was second on the team in scoring with 22 goals and 51 assists while Lucic took another step toward becoming a premier power winger with 17 goals and 25 assists.