The Golden Knights had visions of what Nick Suzuki could do at T-Mobile Arena when he stood onstage wearing the team’s white jersey and black hat June 23, 2017, at Chicago’s United Center.
Those dreams turned into nightmares Tuesday.
Suzuki, whom the Knights selected 13th overall in the 2017 NHL draft, haunted his former franchise with a three-point performance in Montreal’s 4-1 win in Game 5 of its semifinal series. The Canadiens lead the series 3-2, with Game 6 Thursday at Bell Centre.
The center blossomed quickly after leaving Las Vegas in a 2018 trade and is making the Knights pay for it.
“Nick is definitely a great young player and a really important center for us,” Montreal assistant coach Luke Richardson said. “Everybody thinks he’s kind of a sly and smart playmaker, which he is, but if you really watch a game live, he competes and he’s sneaky physical as well. … It’s great for him to add that to his game, being able to take hits and play physical, along with his great vision and hands out there. It’s a good skill set to add together.”
Suzuki was traded with Tomas Tatar and a second-round pick in the Max Pacioretty deal before the Knights’ second season.
But once the Knights and Canadiens were matched in the playoffs, the trade came into focus once more. And it has held up better for Montreal under scrutiny.
Suzuki, 21, leads all players in the series with five points. He matched Pacioretty’s goal and point total for the series with his one-goal, two-assist performance Tuesday.
Suzuki did an excellent job of escaping pressure and buying time to set up the Canadiens’ second goal by center Eric Staal. Then he backchecked hard on the power play to swipe the puck from Knights captain Mark Stone and set up a Montreal rush on its third goal by right wing Cole Caufield.
He scored his first goal of the series into an empty net as a reward for getting his team a big lead.
“He’s super competitive,” Staal said. “Like a lot of the guys on our team, the compete level is really, really high. Obviously the skill set and intelligence are there, but you need to have that extra level of competitiveness in order to make a difference like he has.”
Suzuki has 20 points in 26 playoff games in his two NHL seasons, including 13 this year. Only one player in Canadiens’ history — which is rather storied — has recorded more in a postseason before age 22.
Former Knights forward Nick Cousins, who played for Montreal last season, tweeted Tuesday night saying Suzuki is “Just getting started…”
Sneaky skill, responsible , hockey iq. Just getting started… https://t.co/LEBeMiOsUl
— Nick Cousins (@Cous27) June 23, 2021
The Canadiens hope that’s the case. The Knights hope it isn’t, at least for the rest of this series.
“The team has done a great job of getting great young players,” Suzuki said. “The future looks pretty bright, but we’re not really focused on what’s going on for the next 10 years. We’re just worried about the next game.”
Here are three more takeaways from the loss:
1. Special teams struggles
The Knights continue to lose the special teams battle.
The Canadiens scored their second power-play goal of the series in the second period to improve to 2-for-8 on the man advantage. The Knights are 0-for-13.
Montreal has gone 12 games without allowing a power-play goal, its longest streak since 1933-34. The Canadiens have killed 28 straight penalties.
2. Faceoff success
One of the things the Knights are doing well offensively is executing off faceoffs.
Five of the team’s 11 goals in the series have come off offensive-zone draws. One of those came Tuesday. Center Nicolas Roy won the faceoff to Pacioretty, who fanned on his initial shot before firing a wrister past goaltender Carey Price.
3. Getting behind
The Knights gave up the first goal for the 12th time in 18 playoff games.
They’re 4-3 when that happens but 1-2 against Montreal. The Canadiens are 10-2 when scoring first in the postseason.
“Obviously falling behind that team early is tough,” coach Pete DeBoer said. “That’s not a formula for success we’ve shown.”