BROSSARD, Que.— As the Montreal Canadiens bye-week was approaching, Rafael Harvey-Pinard was sitting around wondering whether or not he could make vacation plans, whether or not he’d still be with the big club or returned to the American Hockey League, and whether or not he’d awaken from the dream he was living out.
The 24-year-old, who was passed over in two NHL drafts before being taken in the seventh round by the Canadiens in 2019, put up five goals and six points in his seven games prior to the break and finished on the team’s top line with captain Nick Suzuki and power forward Josh Anderson. Not only did he get to take a vacation like the rest of his NHL teammates—while Jesse Ylonen and Alex Belzile were loaned back to Laval before being recalled on an emergency basis Thursday—he returned and spent the team’s first practice in 10 days on a line with Suzuki and Anderson again.
“He deserves what’s happening,” said Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis.
For how long is somewhat up to Harvey-Pinard.
On one hand, if he keeps scoring, he becomes a lot harder to shift out of place.
On the other, if the Canadiens get healthier ahead of the trade deadline, the top line might be a place to showcase some players to make them more appealing to buyers. That could displace Harvey-Pinard momentarily.
But none of that changes the opportunity Harvey-Pinard has in front of him.
“It’s a great opportunity to find a way to complete those guys and show I can play with them game after game,” he said.
Suzuki feels there’s more to it than just that.
“If he keeps playing that way, I’m sure he’ll have a job here for a while,” the captain said.
That’s what’s really at stake for Harvey-Pinard, who is but 11 games into his NHL career.
Just 10 days ago, he wasn’t sure if he’d get to enjoy the pause the established Canadiens were taking. Now the kid is refreshed after having spent some time with family in Saguenay, Que.
Harvey-Pinard shockingly qualified the break as “perfectly-timed,” as if he wasn’t the one player with the most to lose in terms of positive momentum.
But listening to his reasoning, it really made sense.
“It gave me a chance to put in perspective what had happened,” Harvey-Pinard said. “It was high emotion for a while and the break allowed me to come back down to Earth a bit.
“It was also good to get away and talk about other things.”
Think about how necessary that is for all of us who are so deeply immersed in our work. Even when things are going as well as can be, a break can be hugely beneficial.
For hockey players like Harvey-Pinard, who play every shift at full throttle, physical rest is essential. For all players, the mental rest is arguably more important.
That’s what St. Louis said after Thursday’s practice, and that was after several of his players said the same.
Speaking with Jordan Harris and Johnathan Kovacevic, rookie defencemen paired together ahead of the final 31 Canadiens games, both talked about how challenging it was to fully mentally disengage.
“It was like the third day or so, and I was like I really miss getting on the ice and competing,” Harris said.
Both he and Kovacevic also talked about how necessary it was, though, to at least have a couple of days not thinking about hockey at all.
Harvey-Pinard said he didn’t do anything for four straight days.
But then he got back on the ice with some injured players with the QMJHL’s Chicoutimi Sagueneens, put another day of solo work in up in Blainville, Que., and was flying at practice on Thursday.
To be back with the Canadiens had to have felt great, and to be with Suzuki and Anderson had to have felt even better.
“You’ve gotta play well to move up the lineup and play more minutes,” said Suzuki. “It’s been that way forever and probably won’t change that much other than certain circumstances. But HP’s level of play has been high, so I think Marty’s done a good job of rewarding him.”
You have to keep earning it
While we’re on the subject of merit, Samuel Montembeault certainly deserves to play more than he did through the portion of the season when Jake Allen was healthy.
The 26-year-old was playing one of every three games before Allen went down with an upper-body injury in early January. He then stepped into an uncontested role as starter and posted a .930 save percentage over eight games that saw him face 39 shots more than the next goaltender on the list from Jan. 8-25.
Martin St. Louis knows Montembeault deserves more, but, just as he said he couldn’t project down the line to say how he would use Harvey-Pinard for the rest of the season, he wouldn’t commit to a firm plan on how he’ll deploy his goaltenders.
“I think we’ll let the performances speak to us and we’ll take it game by game, but I feel like Monty showed he can play more games,” said St. Louis. “I think we’re just going to take it game by game. I can’t tell you it’s going to be an even split, I don’t know.”
What’s most important is that he’s willing to make it that. Perhaps he’s even willing to start Montembeault more than Allen.
Letting the performances dictate what happens from here to the end of the season—barring the circumstances of the trade deadline—will be paramount to continuing to establish a healthy culture.
Montembeault needs to keep going with what he showed when Allen went down to force the Canadiens to continue to give him what he’s already earned, just as Harvey-Pinard needs to keep showing he can play at the level that made him an option for the top line.
Suzuki makes unlikely alliance at All-Star
John Ferguson is probably rolling over in his grave over the thought of the Canadiens captain and a Toronto Maple Leafs star playing together and swapping ideas and tactics—the legendary Canadiens pugilist of the 1960s was notorious for hating his rivals so much he’d walk out of bars and restaurants if he saw them there—but times have changed dramatically, and All-Star Weekend’s format puts rivals together more than ever before.
Suzuki used that as an opportunity to learn a few things from Mitch Marner.
“Just 3-on-3, talking to Marner a little bit, we got to play together, and we went over things gameplan-wise,” Suzuki said.
As self-proclaimed hockey nerds, the 23-year-old was scoping out rival stick patterns and soaking in the opportunity to share a room with some of the most dynamic stars of the Atlantic Division—most notably one Boston Bruin and one member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.
Guys like (Tampa star Nikita) Kucherov and (Bruins sniper David) Pastrnak I hadn’t really been around, and they were really cool to hang out with and talk to.” Suzuki said. “Two guys that have been doing it a long time at a high level, so to spend time with them was a highlight.”
He played some shifts with those two, and several with Marner, and at the end of it was celebrating the $1-million prize for winning with them, the Tkachuk brothers, Dylan Larkin, Rasmus Dahlin, Andrei Vasilevskiy and Linus Ullmark.
“I mean, we kinda gelled as a division,” Suzuki said, “and it kind of showed in our game.”
All in all, it was a great experience for him, even if it meant mixing it up in a way Ferguson never would’ve understood.
Which player blew Suzuki away the most?
He pointed to one from the Metropolitan Division.
“(New York Rangers star Artemi) Panarin was fun to watch,” Suzuki said. “He always is. We got to play him in the first game and just little subtleties that he has—his skating and puck-handling—is incredible. Sometimes you don’t get to see that, but when you get to hang out and watch guys, you can see the skill coming out.”
Odds and ends
• The Canadiens will resume play this weekend as the 27th-ranked team in the NHL. Just how far they fall from here to the end—if they do at all—is anyone’s guess. But several players are still injured, and some potentially being traded out before Mar. 3, they could tumble. Arizona, Chicago, Columbus and Anaheim are teams ranked behind them who all have a chance to pick up points in games on Friday.
• Thursday marked the one-year anniversary of St. Louis’ hire by the Canadiens. He talked about how he’s learned to manage the bench better over that time and about how he’s realized how much more he has to do outside of just coaching the team in order to effectively fulfill his job requirements, but we appreciated most what he said when he was asked to assess his own performance. “It’s not my place to say whether I’m better or not, but I can say that I’ve tried to get better every day. It’s up to everyone else to judge,” St. Louis said. He’s a humble man.
• Kovacevic said he has a goal from here to the end of the season to improve on zone exits and be more physical. He’s come along well in the first department, and he’ll have to shine in the second one to make himself an option the coaching staff can’t turn away from. Kovacevic didn’t make his way to the NHL roughing it up—he typically defends effectively with his stick and his skating and his positioning—but at 6-foot-4 and 208 pounds, he knows he can play with a bit more edge. And that doesn’t just mean hitting guys. Kovacevic has 102 less hits than Arber Xhekaj does having dressed in just three fewer games, but he can narrow that gap a little bit and lean a little harder on players in one-on-one battles to be that much more effective. It’s good that he has that in focus.
• Harris’ goals for the rest of the season: “Defensively, things have been pretty good for the most part. Consistency has always been one of my strong suits and getting the scheduling down and playing pretty much every second day, I’d like to be more consistent on that front and just with the puck. Offensively, I know I have more I can do. It was a good time to reflect over the break and make those goals.”