MONTREAL — It’s the kind of comment that throws you for a loop.
A guy with all the talent in the world, a former third overall pick in the NHL Draft saying, "It kind of feels like I forgot how to play hockey."
Those were the words that came out of Jonathan Drouin’s mouth on Friday after starting with no points in exhibition and none in his first three regular-season games, offering a glimpse of how fleeting confidence can be for even the most gifted of players.
"It’s a funny game this hockey," Drouin said as he peeled off his equipment following a 60-minute practice. "When nothing’s working, it can really mess with your head."
It can if you let it.
That’s an easy thing to do in a place like Montreal, where Drouin is expected to carry the mail for a team that would never be considered an offensive juggernaut. He is the highest paid forward on the Canadiens, he’s coming off a disappointing season, and it looked like the pressure was starting to suffocate him.
And then, a day later, in front of a packed house at the Bell Centre — and against some of the most dynamic players in the world — Drouin remembered how to play. The assist he notched on a second-period power play and the goal he scored in the shootout to give the Canadiens a 4-3 win over the Pittsburgh Penguins only served to punctuate his electric performance.
The puck followed Drouin everywhere he went for the majority of his 23:46 of ice time, a fact that probably didn’t get as much attention as it deserved post-game, though. Tomas Tatar sported a coat that looked like it was straight out of Game of Thrones, a player-of-the-game award for scoring his first two goals as a Canadien since coming over in the September trade that sent former captain Max Pacioretty to the Vegas Golden Knights.
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It was also easy to focus on the Canadiens erasing a 2-0 first-period deficit and sneaking away with a shootout win, and on Antti Niemi filling in admirably for starter Carey Price, making 25 total saves after allowing three goals on the first 10 shots he faced.
"[Drouin] played with a lot of passion tonight," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "We’ve gotta give him credit, he played a good game tonight. I thought he competed hard and skated hard and he seemed excited and wanted to make things happen…"
Things were slowly getting back on the rails for the 23-year-old in the first period, and then he took a shift in the second period that changed everything.
Drouin stole the puck from Evgeni Malkin, dashed into the offensive zone on his strong side and set up a scoring chance for Artturi Lehkonen. Malkin, who was trying to catch up, took a penalty, and the Canadiens scored on the ensuing power play—with Drouin setting up Tatar for his second goal.
"I could feel it coming," Drouin said.
Wave after wave, he and linemates Lehkonen and Max Domi created a fair portion of the chances that saw Montreal jump out to a 13-2 shot advantage through the first 10 minutes of the second period.
As the game wore on, they were more and more dangerous.
And then, with seconds left in overtime, Domi won a faceoff to Drouin, who skated the puck around the net and threw a cross-ice pass to Domi right in front.
Domi just missed completing the highlight-reel play, pinging a one-timer off the post behind Penguins goaltender Casey DeSmith.
After Paul Byron scored and Malkin were stopped in the shootout, Drouin got sent out for a chance to get the insurance marker for the Canadiens.
We asked him if he had a feeling he was going to score.
"I kind of did, yeah," Drouin said. "The goalie — I’ve never faced him and he’s never faced me, so I went with my go-to move and it worked."
He picked up the puck at centre, skated slowly to the right-hand boards, picked up speed towards the middle, shuffled the puck from his forehand to his backhand and back to his forehand and shot from the high slot without breaking stride. Blocker side, off the post and in.
It would have been hard to envision Drouin pulling that off 24 hours ago.
"You feel that way sometimes where you don’t actually forget how to play hockey but you really don’t have that confidence," he said. "Just that feeling of almost rushing plays. For a player like me, I know I have more time than I think."
Through most of exhibition and all of Montreal’s first three games, Drouin appeared to be over-complicating everything.
"He’s just got to tame down his game a little bit and instead of trying to do too much with the puck maybe start keeping it simple and build from there," said Julien on Friday.
"But you can’t find your game in an instant by trying to do too much. You got to simplify it and that’s where Jonathan could be like instead of overpassing, maybe he needs to shoot more. Instead of trying to deke three guys, maybe he needs to chip it in vs. turning the puck over. I don’t think any of the things he’s doing are for bad reasons. He cares about the team and he wants to do well. I think just needs to do it the right way."
Drouin needed something to spark his confidence and, on this night, he got it.