Canadiens’ Nick Suzuki goes toe-to-toe with Panthers’ Aleksander Barkov

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SUNRISE, Fla. — Martin St. Louis has a lot of go-to sayings, lines the Montreal Canadiens coach whips off to make a point that can get repetitive, only because he has to make a point just about every day.

One of his favourites is “comparison is the thief of joy,” something he pulls out just about whenever he is asked to compare one player to another.

If St. Louis had been at the Florida Panthers morning skate Thursday, he might have yelled, “Stop, thief!”

When Panthers coach Paul Maurice was asked about Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki and his defensive play of late, Maurice couldn’t help but look at his captain, Aleksander Barkov.

“I would say that he has a whole lot of Barkov in him,” Maurice said. “Especially — I think I can speak on this — when you’re in a Canadian market and you are a skilled, offensive player, there’s pressure to produce. And in that pressure to produce, especially if you are on a developing team, there’s places for you to value the offensive side of the game more than the defensive side of the game. I don’t think he’s done that.

“I think he’s a real honest, hard player. He starts on faceoffs, he battles, he’s under pucks. He’ll get into (offensive) holes when he gets the chance. He reminds me — and I think, I don’t know the man, this is video — Barkov would be the same kind of player. At the end of the year, you will probably be able to say both men have left offence on the table, appropriately so.”

Suzuki grew up idolizing former Boston Bruins great Patrice Bergeron because of his 200-foot game, the way he took care of both sides of the ice, the way he sometimes sacrificed offence for defence, his own statistical good for the good of the team. It’s not something that comes easily, and prior to this season, while Suzuki’s offensive ceiling is what dominated most of the public discourse around him, it was his defensive ceiling that was a source of mild concern among Canadiens management.

It is clearly not anymore.

After putting up a goal and two assists to complete a torrid February in a 4-3 shootout loss Thursday to the powerhouse Panthers, Suzuki was told about the comparison Maurice made with Barkov. And while Suzuki was not exactly thrilled about the loss, hearing that still managed to put a little smile on his face.

“That’s pretty high praise,” Suzuki said. “He’s a really good player, he’s always tough to go up against, and he’s been really good ever since he got into the league. So it’s really nice to hear that from him.”

Suzuki and Barkov were matched up all night, and their numbers looked very similar.

Suzuki vs. Barkov

Player G A Pts TOI PP TOI PK TOI FO %

Suzuki

1

2

3

22:16

5:00

2:46

40%

Barkov

1

2

3

22:58

7:06

3:40

58%

Suzuki finished February with 11 goals and six assists in 11 games, shooting at a ridiculous 32.4 percent clip. Only Auston Matthews, with 13, scored more goals than Suzuki over the month. He has 59 points in 60 games this season, bordering on the elusive point-per-game label people hoped to see from him and putting him on pace for 80 points, a mark no Canadiens player has hit since Alex Kovalev had 84 in 2008.

The offensive ceiling appears to have been raised, and while some of his defensive metrics have slipped over the same span, clearly those slips did not show up in video sessions to a seasoned coach like Maurice.

Barkov’s breakout season came in 2018-19 when he put up 96 points at age 23, though it was his sixth season in the NHL. That was also Canadiens goaltender Sam Montembeault’s rookie season with the Panthers.

“I think they’re really similar,” said Montembeault, who made 32 saves in the shootout loss. “Barkov’s a bigger guy, but I think they’re both really good players, 200 feet, Nick plays PK, plays power play, plays a lot of big minutes for us, same as Barkov does. Barkov’s probably one of the most underrated players in the league, he’s so good at everything, and Nick has been so good for us too recently, he’s putting up points and playing really well defensively.”

The Canadiens getting a point in this game against arguably the strongest team in the NHL was no small feat. The Panthers entered the game 21-4-2 in their previous 27 games. They had not allowed more than two goals in 14 straight before the Canadiens snapped that streak. St. Louis considered his team’s performance to be a step, a term he is careful to use, but one he felt confident saying after the game.

However, though the Canadiens were tied heading into the first intermission, this game could have turned at the start of the second. Jake Evans was called for a careless tripping penalty at the buzzer with Mike Matheson and Matthew Tkachuk already in the penalty box with offsetting roughing minors. The Panthers would open the second with a four-on-three advantage with two of Montreal’s top penalty-killers unavailable.

St. Louis tabbed Joel Armia to start the period because he wanted to save Suzuki for later in the penalty kill in case he was needed to win a defensive zone draw. Once Suzuki got on the ice, he broke up two Panthers passes with smart stick positioning and would have had a breakaway if David Savard had seen him behind the Panthers defence instead of dumping the puck down the ice.

At the start of the third period, with the score tied 2-2, the Panthers had a dangerous situation brewing about 20 seconds in with Sam Reinhart entering the Canadiens’ zone and Barkov cutting toward the net. He might have thought he was alone, but he wasn’t because Suzuki was trailing just a few feet behind him. As Reinhart’s pass arrived, Suzuki lifted Barkov’s stick from behind, and the pass slid harmlessly into the corner.

The Canadiens took the lead a little over three minutes later when Suzuki drew two Panthers penalty killers to him along the boards, got the puck over to Cole Caufield in the corner and he sent the puck to that open space created with two defenders on Suzuki, where Alex Newhook scored to give the Canadiens a 3-2 lead.

At the start of overtime, Suzuki was out there against Barkov. In the shootout, Suzuki took his attempt just before Barkov. Suzuki was stopped, Barkov was not.

Suzuki went toe-to-toe with one of the best two-way forwards in the NHL, perhaps the best, taking that mantle from Bergeron. And like Bergeron, Barkov is a player Suzuki wants to emulate.

“I’ve watched a lot of him,” Suzuki said. “He’s really good everywhere on the ice, and that’s how I want to be too. It was a good matchup all night tonight.”

But for St. Louis, this was nothing new. He’s seen enough of this from Suzuki recently that the expectation is this, maybe not 3 points every night, but this level of competitiveness and ability to drive momentum for his team on a nightly basis.

“He’s found the consistency of a captain this year,” St. Louis said.

And when told of the comparison Maurice made between the two captains that morning, St. Louis did not accuse the Panthers coach of theft. He actually agreed with him.

“I can see the way they play the game, they always play at the right pace, whatever that is,” St. Louis said. “They’ll speed it up, they’ll slow it down, they’re really smart on the ice where they go, they’ve got good touches, they’ve got good skill.

“I would say he’s not wrong.”

And that should bring the Canadiens a lot of joy in the coming years.

(Photo of Nick Suzuki and Aleksander Barkov: Joel Auerbach / NHLI via Getty Images)





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Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams
Alexandra Williams is a writer and editor. Angeles. She writes about politics, art, and culture for LinkDaddy News.

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