Stu Cowan: Canadiens and fans have some fun at Skills Competition

Arber Xhekaj wins hardest-shot event with 107.2-mph blast, while Alex Newhook is fastest skater and Cole Caufield is most accurate shooter.

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Sunday was a fun day for the Canadiens as they held their annual Skills Competition at an almost-full Bell Centre.

The timing was good because the players probably needed a dose of fun after losing their last five games.

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“At the end of the day, it’s for the fans and they appreciate it, and we appreciate their support today,” defenceman Arber Xhekaj said. “It definitely cheers you up after a little bit of a slump that we’re in right now.”

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Xhekaj gave the fans something to cheer about when he won the hardest-shot competition with a 107.2-mph blast. The NHL record for hardest shot at the All-Star Skills Competition is 108.8 mph, set by former Boston Bruins captain Zdeno Chara in 2012. Former Canadiens captain Shea Weber won the NHL hardest-shot event four times with a personal best of 108.5 mph. Martin Frk recorded a 109.2-mph blast to win the hardest-shot in the Skills Competition at the 2020 AHL All-Star Classic

“I knew I could beat 100 (mph), but I didn’t know I was going to get that high,” Xhekaj said. “I went 105 (mph) before. I thought that was the max I could get, but I guess not.”

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Eight members of Montreal’s PWHL team also took part in Sunday’s Skills Competition and Marie-Phillip Poulin registered an 84.6-mph shot. That’s very impressive when you consider Johnathan Kovacevic hit 92.9 mph, Brendan Gallagher 93.1 mph, Michael Pezzetta 94.2 mph, Tanner Pearson 96.9 mph, Kaiden Guhle 97.9 mph and Mike Matheson 98.6 mph.

Alex Newhook won the fastest-skater competition with a time of 13.372 seconds for a lap around the rink. Sarah Bujold was the fastest of the female players with a time of 14.247.

Not surprisingly, Cole Caufield won the shooting accuracy event, needing six shots and 12.386 seconds to hit the four targets. Gallagher and Josh Anderson only needed five shots each, but both took more time than Caufield.

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With tickets starting at only $12, there were a lot of families and kids in the stands who probably can’t afford to attend a Canadiens game and they really enjoyed themselves. The Canadiens took down the glass on the side boards so fans could get close to the players for photos and autographs.

“I felt almost bad for the person who was sitting in the front row because people were all over them,” goalie Samuel Montembeault said. “But it’s fun to have that close interaction with fans and it’s just a fun day to have here at the Bell Centre.”

Like I said, the Canadiens could use a dose of fun.

Saturday’s’s 4-3 loss to the Devils in New Jersey dropped the Canadiens’ record to 22-28-8 and they fell into last place in the Atlantic Division, one point behind the Ottawa Senators, who hold three games in hand. The Canadiens also dropped to 27th in the overall NHL standings — two points ahead of the Arizona Coyotes — after finishing 28th last season.

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The Canadiens are actually two points worse than they were after 58 games last season when they had a 25-29-4 record. This season, they have scored 163 goals and given up 209 for a minus-46 goal differential. After 58 games last season, they had scored 161 goals and given up 209 for a minus-48 differential.

Through Saturday’s games, there were 183 players in the NHL with 30 points or more, but only four of them were on the Canadiens: Nick Suzuki (22-33-55), Caufield (19-27-46), Matheson (8-35-43) and Juraj Slafkovsky (12-18-30). Through Saturday’s games, there were 72 players in the NHL with at least 19 goals, but only two Canadiens: Suzuki and Caufield.

There is obviously still a lot of work to be done in this rebuilding process.

Three of the Canadiens’ last four losses have been by one goal.

“It’s draining right now because we’re not winning games, but I think we’re playing well … well enough to be winning those games,” Xhekaj said. “We’re just kind of shooting ourselves in the foot a little bit. It’s a little bit draining, but I think once we get out of this little slump we’ll be OK.”

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Since trading Sean Monahan to the Winnipeg Jets for a first-round pick at this year’s NHL Draft and a conditional third-round pick in 2027, the Canadiens have a 2-7-0 record.

“He brought a lot to the team,” Xhekaj said about Monahan. “He’s an excellent player, so he’s definitely a tough loss. But we don’t look back … we keep going forward.”

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A lot of the players brought their families with them on Sunday. One of the highlights of the day was the shootout competition, which came down to a battle between Brysen Byron and Jacob Burrows. Brysen is the young son of former Canadien Paul Byron, who is now a player development consultant. Jacob is the son of assistant coach Alex Burrows.

Jacob edged out Brysen as his proud father held back tears watching from the bench. Byron was handling on-ice interviews throughout the event and asked his son what happened?

“I don’t know,” Brysen said. “I think my stick is broken.”

It really was a fun day.

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