It came as almost no surprise that Cole Caufield, playing his first game in more than eight months, scored the winning goal for the Canadiens Wednesday night on the power play.
But the bigger, more-pleasant revelation was the play of Juraj Slafkovsky. The 19-year-old man/child scored once in the Canadiens’ hard-fought 4-3 pre-season victory over the pesky Ottawa Senators at the Bell Centre, but could have easily had more.
Slafkovsky, the first overall draft choice in 2022, will always have that cross to bear. And playing in a hockey-crazed city like Montreal, expectations will always be high on the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Slovak.
In 39 games as a rookie, he produced four goals and 10 points, but also proved to be a defensive liability at times before sustaining a season-ending knee injury in mid-January.
“I’m just hoping for him to grow this season,” head coach Martin St. Louis said. “And growing is not necessarily in a straight line. There’s going to be some dips and stuff, but I’m pretty sure from now until the end of the season, when we connect these dots, it’s going up.
“The expectations that he has to live with, sometimes they’re unfair. Tonight he was in the right spot. It’s one thing to be in the right spot and doing the right thing when you’re in that spot. Obviously he has speed, he’s got strength and he can shoot the puck. It’s a good sign to me, the last five periods he has played. And we’re going to keep going.”
Slafkovsky pounced on a loose puck from a scramble in front, beating goaltender Joonas Korpisalo with a snap shot to the glove side at 13:44 of the first period, providing the Canadiens with a 2-0 lead.
But Slafkovsky was thirsty for more.
Early in the second period from the side, and with an open net staring him in the face, Slafkovsky shot wide. Three minutes later, while Montreal was on the power play, he cut in from the right wing, only to be denied by Korpisalo’s glove. And in the 13th minute of the period, his backhand from the slot was wide.
In slightly less than 14 minutes of ice time, Slafkovsky had two shots, three attempts that missed the net, one hit and one blocked shot. He also took a third-period tripping penalty, but was all over the ice, his presence felt in large measures.
“It’s the second game still and I just started to play on Monday after nine months,” Slafkovsky said. “It’s still getting there. It helps, playing a lot of games. I’m slowly building my game back and I already feel much better. I know the progress is there.
“The last time I scored it was in December. It feels pretty good to score again. It feels great to score, even if it’s pre-season. You’ve got to start somewhere. I know what I need to do and where I should be. I felt today was better than Monday. I’ll keep building from that.”
Brandon Gignac, a former third-round draft choice of New Jersey in 2016 with one career NHL game on his resumé, opened the scoring for Montreal, while Sean Monahan scored the other goal. The Canadiens lost all eight of their exhibition games last season.
Mathieu Joseph paced the Senators with a pair of goals. Dominik Kubalik also scored.
Jake Allen started in goal for Montreal, allowing two goals on 12 shots before being replaced by Cayden Primeau midway through the second period. Primeau was beaten on the second shot he faced before settling down, holding the fort over the final 20 minutes, when the Canadiens were outshot 10-4.
Caufield is the Canadiens’ most-natural scorer — a big reason why the 22-year-old was rewarded with an eight-year, US$62.8-million extension last June, the second-highest contract for a forward in team history, trailing captain Nick Suzuki’s similar eight-year deal by $200.000.
Caufield, who underwent season-ending surgery on his right shoulder, was playing his first game since Jan. 19.
Korpisalo got a piece of Caufield’s shot and should have corralled the puck. After all, that’s why he was signed to a five-year, US$20-million free-agent contract after dividing last season between Columbus and Los Angeles.
The Canadiens entertain Toronto Friday night.
Recommended from Editorial
Stu Cowan: Sean Monahan’s versatility gives Canadiens many lineup options
Stu Cowan: Devils’ Jack Hughes puts on a show in win over Canadiens
Jack Todd: Canadiens fans need to relax and give Juraj Slafkovsky time