Slafkovsky chirping Brown

MONTREAL — The moment began long before. Weeks before, even.

On the first day of Canadiens training camp, Brendan Gallagher turned to rookie Juraj Slafkovsky a couple of seats over from him in the dressing room at the team’s practice facility and commented on his rudimentary, minimalist tape job on his stick.

“I told him in camp, if you score today, the first day, you can keep it. If not, you have to add one row every day,” Gallagher said Thursday night. “So he went through camp and into the season, so those were all the rows that he had to add. And he scored a goal.”

Yes, the No. 1 pick in the 2022 NHL Draft scored the first goal of his career in a 6-2 win against the Arizona Coyotes on Thursday. Whether the tape job had anything to do with it is up for debate, but Gallagher’s influence on the young man is clearly starting to manifest itself.

“It’s got to be a pretty crazy experience for him, especially the way the crowd received him,” Gallagher said. “It’s fun to see. Everyone feeds off it. Whenever you see a young kid smiling and happy, it’s a good feeling.”

In the game, Slafkovsky’s buddy Arber Xhekaj dropped the gloves with one of the toughest customers in the NHL, Coyotes forward Zack Kassian, the same player who took a run at Canadiens goaltender Samuel Montembeault last season only to have everyone on the Canadiens stand around and watch him do it. It became a flashpoint for the dysfunction and lack of pushback this team showed last season.

It’s not that Xhekaj’s fight with Kassian on Thursday night undid what happened last season, or provided the opposite effect for his team, but it sent a message. A message that would play a role in the moment Slafkovsky would experience one period later. Because Xhekaj not only won the fight, he made Kassian — listed at 6-foot-3, 211 pounds — look like a child.

“I know there is a TikTok going around with his hands, so I wasn’t surprised at all, but I know the crowd was surprised,” Slafkovsky said. “He can really kill people, I think.”

When Slafkovsky crossed the Coyotes’ blue line in the second period and took a high hit from Arizona defenceman Josh Brown — nothing overly dirty, mind you, but Brown’s hands came up a bit into Slafkovsky’s face — that instinct Xhekaj showed earlier to defend his teammates kicked in. As Slafkovsky curled back toward the blue line after the hit, he felt the breeze of Xhekaj flying past him in the opposite direction. The target was Brown, and Xhekaj drilled him into the boards.

“That’s my buddy, my teammate,” Xhekaj explained. “If you’re going to hit him like that, high in the face, I’m going to take a run at you. So that was that.”

Coach Martin St. Louis conceded that’s not exactly how they want their defencemen to play. But on this occasion, he seemed fine with it.

“I like when my D-men pinch, but I found that was a bit of a deep pinch,” St. Louis said with a laugh. “As a coach, you just kind of turn your head on that one.”

Xhekaj making that deep pinch meant Brown had to rush his pass, and Slafkovsky was covering for Xhekaj high in the zone, so the puck popped right to him. He stepped into the left circle and fired a shot that beat Coyotes goalie Connor Ingram clean.

The Bell Centre exploded, and both Slafkovsky and Xhekaj immediately let loose on Brown.

“It was a lot of ‘F’ but I don’t know what came after,” Slafkovsky said with a big laugh. “I had emotions, so I was giving it to him as well as Arber.”

When Slafkovsky got back to the bench, Gallagher was sitting next to him, and the Bell Centre crowd was losing it, chanting his name and showing what makes Montreal a special place to play. Gallagher tried to get Slafkovsky to stand up and wave to the crowd, but he remained seated. He’s a rookie, after all, and he wasn’t sure if Gallagher was pulling a fast one on him. So he waved, he just didn’t stand.

“It’s something special when this happens in this building. I think I will remember that for the rest of my life. It was, so far maybe, after a goal, one of the best feelings I’ve ever had.”

After the game, Slafkovsky showed one of the big reasons the Canadiens took him at No. 1. General manager Kent Hughes has mentioned numerous times they believed Slafkovsky had the temperament to play in this market, with all the pressure and unique aspects of playing in front of these fans.

After being mugged by his teammates as he gave them fist bumps, including being headlocked by Xhekaj, who looked like he would have given the 6-foot-3, 238-pound Slafkovsky noogies if he weren’t wearing a helmet, the players left the ice and the building waited for the announcement of the three stars.

Gallagher went first, named the game’s third star, and came back with specific instructions for Slafkovsky.

“Did he do a lap at the end? Did you see?” Gallagher asked in the dressing room.

Not only did Slafkovsky do a lap as the game’s first star to throw out the three game pucks into the stands, but just before throwing his final puck, he reached one end of the rink and started egging on either side of the building to cheer louder so they could get the puck. This showed what Hughes was talking about, not only accepting a moment like this, but having fun with it, enjoying it to its fullest and not being intimidated by it.

“Ok, that makes me happy,” Gallagher said when told how that first star twirl unfolded. “I got him to do that.”

Except, again, Slafkovsky thought maybe Gallagher was pulling a fast one on him.

“I just try to enjoy every moment. Like, you don’t get a moment like that every night,” Slafkovsky said. “When I went out there, I was actually thinking, ‘Are they joking with me that I have to go around (and do a lap)? Are they trying to make me do something I don’t have to do?’”

After two weeks where his spot in the NHL was a subject of near-constant debate in Montreal, Slafkovsky’s big night showed to what extent he is fitting in, how his teammates are sharing his excitement for what is going on with him. There are negatives that could be focused on when an 18-year-old rookie taken with the first pick struggles to stand out, but the fact is Slafkovsky played his fifth NHL game Thursday night and has not looked completely out of place in one of them. He hadn’t exactly thrived, but he wasn’t simply surviving. He was learning the North American game, making the most of the minutes he was getting and building up to the point we witnessed Thursday, a moment he and everyone else was waiting for.

Now, that moment is behind him, and even that could have benefits.

“I’m going to take my time to answer that because I think, as an organization, as we deal with players individually, we’re very process-focused,” St. Louis said. “But the result is important for the confidence of the group as a team. Winning’s got to be part of the process too. And individually, producing’s got to be part of the process too.

“He did that tonight, he feels good. Does he take a step in his game? I assume he will because he gains confidence from this. So, it’s important. As much as you want to be process-driven, individually and collectively, the result really helps the process.”

It is unclear how long Slafkovsky will remain in the NHL. The Canadiens at some point might want him playing high-leverage minutes in the AHL, playing on the top power play, being a go-to player, as opposed to playing at the bottom of the lineup in Montreal.

But Slafkosvky has been happy playing in the NHL — he joked a few days earlier how it felt like his life was a video game because he was facing Alex Ovechkin and Sidney Crosby — and the moment he experienced Thursday is just as important in his development as the high-leverage minutes he might get in the AHL. Even more important, perhaps.

And at the very least, he learned an important lesson from it all.

“Now,” Slafkovsky said, “I stick with this tape job.”

(Photo of Juraj Slafkovsky yelling at Josh Brown: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)



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