Juraj Slafkovsky outshines Connor Bedard in Canadiens' 5-2 victory

Picks up a goal and an assist as Habs head home for Christmas break after earning points in each of their last five games (3-0-2).

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The Canadiens won the NHL Draft Lottery a year too early.

That’s not a knock on Juraj Slafkovsky, but No. 1 overall draft picks aren’t all created equal.

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The Canadiens selected Slafkovsky with the No. 1 pick in 2022 and the Chicago Blackhawks took Connor Bedard at No. 1 this year.

While Slafkovsky is a project at age 19 and still taking baby steps — whether they be fancy analytics stats showing his improvement or the eye test watching him start to use his 6-foot-3, 230-pound body more to his advantage — Bedard is already a star at age 18.

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The two No. 1 overall picks squared off Friday night in Chicago with the Canadiens beating the Blackhawks 5-2 while Slafkovsky stole the spotlight from Bedard. Slafkovsky had a goal and an assist, while Bedard was limited to one assist.

Mitchell Stephens, Josh Anderson, Nick Suzuki and David Savard (empty-netter) also scored for the Canadiens, who came back from a 2-0 deficit early in the second period and improved their record to 15-13-5, including 8-4-3 on the road. The Canadiens have earned points in five straight games (3-0-2) and are only three points out of a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference.

Ryan Donato and Jason Dickinson scored for the Blackhawks, who fell to 10-21-1.

This game included a few firsts for the Canadiens.

Stephens, who spent all of last season with the AHL’s Laval Rocket, scored his first goal in the NHL since March 3, 2020, when he was with the Tampa Bay Lightning. Slafkovsky scored in back-to-back games for the first time in his NHL career and goalie Cayden Primeau won back-to-back games for the first time in the NHL as the Canadiens outshot the Blackhawks 28-21. Defenceman Jayden Struble also got in his first NHL fight, dropping the gloves with MacKenzie Entwistle in the second period.

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Anderson now has five goals this season, including four in the last four games, while Suzuki extended his point streak to five games with 2-6-8 totals during that span. Suzuki now leads the Canadiens in goals (10), assists (20) and points (30).

“I like where my game is right now,” Suzuki told reporters in Chicago after the game. “It’s just a matter of keeping that consistent game, knowing I can do it each and every night. I thought my start was pretty bad today, but I was able to come back in the second period and play better and have a good game overall.”

Bedard has 12-17-29 totals to lead all rookies in scoring while playing on a team that is tied with the San Jose Sharks for last place in the overall NHL standings and could end up with the No. 1 overall draft pick again next year.

Slafkovsky has 4-8-12 totals this season, including 2-3-5 totals in the last four games.

Those baby steps are starting to get bigger.

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Canadiens GM Kent Hughes said last week on The Sick Podcast — The Eye Test that he believes it will be another three or four years before Slafkovsky becomes the player he hopes to be.

This was the ninth straight game Slafkovsky played on the No. 1 line with Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Slafkovsky had gone 13 games without a goal before scoring in Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Wild in Minnesota.

“It’s been fun to watch his progression,” Suzuki said about Slafkovsky. “Each game he seems to get more comfortable. We didn’t really have the best first period, but he dialed back in. He scores a big goal. He’s come a long way since the first game he’s played with us. Just seeing that every day from him is awesome.”

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Slafkovsky used his size to fight off Blackhawks defenceman Isaak Phillips in front of the net to bang home a loose puck in the crease. Against Minnesota, Slafkovsky was standing in front of the net when a point shot from Savard went in off his leg.

“Yesterday, it went off the leg,” Slafkovsky told reporters in Chicago after the game. “Today at least it went off the stick. So it’s getting closer … maybe I’ll start scoring from a little farther out, too.

“I just feel better overall, feel better making plays,” Slafkovsky added. “Playing with those two guys, it’s unbelievable and they’re just helping me and we’re helping each other.”

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Slafkovsky and his teammates flew back to Montreal after the game and will enjoy a four-day Christmas break before flying to Carolina next Wednesday and facing the Hurricanes the following night.

Slafkovsky has played more NHL games (72) and has more points (8-14-22) than any other player selected at the 2022 draft. But Logan Cooley (selected third overall by Arizona), Pavel Mintyukov (selected 10th overall by Anaheim) and Matthew Poitras (selected in the second round, 54th overall, by Boston) are quickly catching up in points after making their NHL debuts this season. Cooley has 3-14-17 totals in 32 games with the Coyotes, Mintyukov has 2-15-17 totals in 32 games with the Ducks and Poitras has 5-8-13 totals in 27 games with the Bruins. Boston has loaned Poitras to Team Canada for the world junior championship, which starts Boxing Day in Gothenberg, Sweden.

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Bedard was the star at last season’s world junior championship with 9-14-23 totals in seven games while helping Team Canada win the gold medal.

Friday night was Bedard’s second and final game this season against the Canadiens. He also had one assist when the Canadiens beat the Blackhawks 3-2 in their home opener at the Bell Centre on Oct. 14.

It will be interesting to see what type of progress Bedard and Slafkovsky have made when they meet again next season.

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