Canadiens' Juraj Slafkovsky gaining confidence and consistency

Young power forward played one of his best games in a Habs uniform Monday night against the Seattle Kraken at the Bell Centre.

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It might have been something as simple as the later start. Or, more than likely, it was playing on a line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield that brought the best out of Juraj Slafkovsky.

“The game was 7:30, that was different,” Slafkovsky quipped following Tuesday’s practice at the CN Sports Complex in Brossard and before the team’s annual visits to sick children at three Montreal hospitals. “I had 30 more minutes of sleep in the afternoon. The guys used me and it felt great.

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Whatever the reasons, the Canadiens’ 19-year-old man-child played one of his best games in a Montreal uniform Monday night against the Seattle Kraken.

Although the first overall draft choice in 2022 did not register a point in the Canadiens’ 4-2 victory, he made his presence felt on nearly every shift. The 6-foot-3, 230-pound Slovak played like a power forward, using his size and speed to advantage, creating opportunities throughout the match.

Perhaps his best shift came in the second period. Slafkovsky was hard on the backcheck before going on the rush, drawing a tripping penalty on defenceman Adam Larsson. Sean Monahan scored his second goal of the game on the ensuing power-play, giving Montreal a 3-0 lead.

Slafkovsky had 17 shifts over 16:42, including a modest 58 seconds of power-play time. He had one shot, two missed opportunities and two hits. He still appears reluctant at times to shoot.

“It’s good to have a game like that,” Slafkovsky said. “It makes you much more confident. You feel better during the practice. Just in your normal life, you feel better.

“I’ll just try to take the good stuff. I’m sure there were some plays where maybe I could have done something else. Just keep learning, keep playing and hopefully I keep progressing.”

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This isn’t the first time Slafkovsky, who has two goals and seven points in 25 games, has been put on the Canadiens’ top line. He had Suzuki and Caufield as linemates twice in early November. The teenager scored a goal during a 6-3 loss at St. Louis before being held without a point in a 5-3 loss to Tampa Bay at the Bell Centre.

Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis has jumped to Slafkovsky’s defence recently, making it clear he sees nothing wrong with the developing player’s progress. The coach praised him again on Tuesday.

“I saw a lot of the same stuff,” St. Louis said. “I just saw more of it. I don’t know if it’s the line or if it’s Slaf. But to me, it has been a great progression. I don’t know if he had one bad shift in this game.

“I always say, with a young team and a young player you’re chasing consistency. I feel Slaf is bringing that.”

Slafkovsky admitted Suzuki and Caufield might have brought the best out of him. although at this level, a player should be able to team with anyone. Since the Canadiens returned from their five-game road trip, Slafkovsky found himself with Caufield and Christian Dvorak against Florida before being teamed with Tanner Pearson and Jake Evans against Detroit.

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Slafkovsky hasn’t scored since Nov. 18 in Boston, when he produced two points. Since then, he has been held to a pair of assists in seven games. In 39 games as a rookie last season, he had four goals and 10 points but struggled in his defensive zone. He suffered a season-ending knee injury against the New York Rangers on Jan. 18.

Slafkovsky said he’s feeling more comfortable and confident in his second season, but also understands the pressure and expectations of being a first overall draft choice will never cease.

“I knew it was going to be a big challenge,” he admitted. “You never know how long it’s going to take to find your game in a league like this. Since I came here I’ve been trying to improve every day, work on my game non-stop. I’d say, finally, it’s going in the right direction. Hopefully everything will come.

“I feel like there’s a couple of special young players. People think everyone will be like those guys. It’s not always like that. Some guys need more time. Some guys need less time. Some guys will never figure that out. I know what I want at the end of my career. When I’m 40 or 50 I’ll be able to say I did everything I could.”

In other news, defenceman Mike Matheson didn’t practise on Tuesday and was taking a therapy day after playing a team-high 24:34 against Seattle. Also, while defenceman David Savard (fractured hand) is close to returning, it won’t be Thursday at home against Los Angeles, according to St. Louis.

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