Stu's Slapshots: Canadiens' Arber Xhekaj learning to toe the line

Flyers head coach John Tortorella has high praise for the job his good friend Martin St. Louis is doing with Habs.

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I was chatting with Canadiens defenceman Arber Xhekaj after Thursday’s morning skate at the Bell Centre about the confidence he has been playing with recently and how he has been able to cut down on his penalties while continuing to be a physical presence.

“I talk to (the referees) a lot,” Xhekaj said. “I don’t know … I think I’m getting a better relationship than last year, for sure, with the refs.

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“I never badmouth them,” Xhekaj added. “When they give me a penalty, I never say anything. I try to explain my point of view sometimes and say this is what I thought I was doing and whatnot. But it’s been good so far, honestly. They just say what they saw (after a penalty) if I throw a hit or something. They’ll say this is kind of what I saw.”

During Thursday night’s 4-1 win over the Philadelphia Flyers, Xhekaj took three minor penalties, giving him a team-leading 79 penalty minutes for the season. He had only eight penalty minutes over the previous 10 games.

Against the Flyers, Xhekaj was penalized for slashing at 6:47 of the first period, took a roughing penalty along with Philadelphia’s Scott Laughton at the end of the first period and was penalized again for hooking at 7:20 of the third period.

Following our morning conversation, it was interesting to watch referee Gord Dwyer skate over to the penalty box to talk with Xhekaj after his first penalty of the night to explain the call.

Xhekaj has been playing with a calm confidence since being paired for the last several games with veteran David Savard on the blue line.

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“He’s just a great, steady guy back there, so he gives me all the leeway to play my game and do my thing,” Xhekaj said. “I just think I’m finding my game and getting some respect from the refs as well.”

The 23-year-old defenceman is also getting respect from head coach Martin St. Louis after being sent down to the Laval Rocket in early December for a 17-game stint in the AHL. In 41 games with the Canadiens this season, Xhekaj has 3-6-9 totals and a plus-6 differential while averaging 15:52 of ice time per game.

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“It’s a hard position for a young guy,” St. Louis said after Thursday’s game, during which Xhekaj logged 16:41 of ice time with one shot and three hits. “I think more than anything, to me, it’s finding that balance. It’s a fine line. He has a game that he’s going to toe that line and we need him to toe that line. You don’t want to take that (physical aspect) away from him and sometimes he’s going to go over the line. But as long as he corrects himself and he stays near the line, I think we’re fine.

“I think he’s found some consistency in that,” St. Louis added. “So he’s got a nice balance because he can make plays. I think his defensive awareness and his defensive game has improved. He’s not perfect, but nobody will be at that age and even as a veteran nobody’s going to be perfect. If he has a bad shift, it doesn’t usually take over his game. He’s able to just move on from it. I think it’s being a little more mature, but I find for me it’s his consistency of just toeing that line. Just kind of doing what the game is asking him to do. Not have his mind made up this is what I’m doing. You want him to be able to toe that line.”

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Xhekaj is doing exactly that.

The 6-foot-4, 240-pounder has had five fights this season, but he hasn’t dropped the gloves in the last 11 games. He has reached the point where he doesn’t have to fight in order to have a physical presence.

“It all depends on the game and what we need,” Xhekaj said. “For me, I do it for the benefit of the team. If someone’s taking hits on my guys or doing something I’m going to answer the bell. But I’m not at a point where I’m fighting just to fight. I think I’m passed that right now. I think it’s just whatever benefits the team right now is what I’m doing.”

A different view

When St. Louis left the team for the first four games of their recent five-game road trip to deal with a family issue, he watched those games on TV.

“It was different watching them from that point of view,” he said after Thursday’s morning skate. “It was a great exercise, though. I just loved the way our intentions (were), the way we played. I always say I feel like our good is elite and I saw that. And watching it from that point of view it was very encouraging and reassuring of what we’re doing. So, yeah, it was actually a good exercise.”

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St. Louis left the team after his youngest son, 16-year-old Mason, was hospitalized because of complications from a hockey injury he had suffered a week earlier while playing for the U-15 Mid-Fairfield Rangers in Connecticut. St. Louis rejoined the team in Colorado for Tuesday’s 2-1 win over the Avalanche after Mason’s condition stabilized. Mason is now recovering at the family home in Connecticut with his mother.

The win over the Flyers was the third straight for the Canadiens, which is their longest winning streak of the season. They’ll be looking to extend it to four games Saturday at the Bell Centre against the Carolina Hurricanes (7 p.m., Citytv, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

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Respect for St. Louis

St. Louis and John Tortorella have a long history together.

Tortorella was St. Louis’s head coach for seven seasons with the Tampa Bay Lightning and they won the Stanley Cup together in 2004. That’s the same season St. Louis won the Hart Trophy as league MVP and the Art Ross Trophy as the leading scorer after posting 38-56-94 totals in 82 regular-season games.

The two men remain great friends and they spoke together for about 30 minutes Thursday morning at the Bell Centre.

“It’s always great to see him and I’m so happy with Mason and his family how things have calmed down there a little bit,” Tortorella said after the Flyers’ morning skate. “I talked to Marty right on through that, so I’m really happy his family’s OK.”

Tortorella is also impressed with the job St. Louis is doing with the Canadiens.

“He’s going to be such a good coach because he wears it,” Tortorella said. “I think he has one of the most interesting minds when it comes to hockey. He can’t give all his thoughts to his team because he has a lot of stuff going on in there. We’ve had many conversations about that because he drove me crazy as far as how many things were going on in his mind when I coached him.

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“I think he’s going to be terrific,” Tortorella added. “And just talking now before I came out to meet you guys and some of the things he’s explaining to me what he’s doing with his team, it’s fun for me because we’re at a different plane now. To coach him and all the things him and I went through — which weren’t always good — and to be able to talk as peers and as coaches and talk about our teams, it’s so fun for me to see where he’s gone to. You’re in good hands here, I’ll tell you right now.”

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Respect for Tortorella

St. Louis has mutual respect for Tortorella and said he learned a lot from him about coaching. St.Louis is also impressed by the job Tortorella has done this season with the Flyers, who are still battling for a playoff spot.

“In terms of the culture that he’s brought there (with the Flyers), I feel like we’re on the same level in building the culture,” St. Louis said about Tortorella after the Canadiens’ morning skate Thursday. “The Xs and Os and the delivery of the message, I’m going to be me, I’m not going to be Torts. But do I have moments that I find myself like: Oh, I feel like that was like Torts? Of course, I do.

“Torts has a long coaching career, a very successful one,” St. Louis added. “I’m not sure that he started exactly the way he is today. There’s a progression. You live and learn. Am I going to evolve and change a few things in there? Probably. But I don’t know when that’s going to be. I’m going to be me and react on things based on the information I have and what I see. But in terms of to try to build a team, it really starts in that culture in that dressing room and that’s something I’ve learned from Torts.”

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Poehling returns to Bell Centre

Ryan Poehling, the Canadiens’ first-round pick (25th overall) at the 2017 NHL Draft, was back at the Bell Centre on Thursday as the Flyers’ third-line centre between Joel Farabee and Garnet Hathaway.

Poehling had no points, two shots and won only four of the 11 faceoffs he took (36 per cent). In 69 games this season, the 25-year-old has 10-15-25 totals.

Poehling played 85 games with the Canadiens over three seasons, posting 13-9-22 totals. The Canadiens traded Jeff Petry and Poehling to the Pittsburgh Penguins on July 16, 2022, in exchange for Mike Matheson and a fourth-round pick at last year’s NHL Draft. The Flyers signed Poehling as a free agent last summer to a one-year, US$1.4-million contract.

“His game has elevated throughout the year,” Tortorella said Thursday morning when asked about Poehling. “He started as a pencilled-in fourth-line centre. Slowly went about it. I love his speed. Doesn’t do anything great. He’s not a great checker, but he can check. Not a great scorer, but he can bang a goal in. I just like his consistency of his play and I think he’s been put on a line that’s kind of been developed as we’ve gone through here that gives us momentum. I’d like to see him score some more goals because they spend a lot of time in the other team’s end zone because of the way they play.”

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Here’s what former Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said about Poehling after selecting him in the first round of the 2017 NHL Draft after he had posted 7-6-13 totals in 35 games at St. Cloud State:

“You’re projecting down the road but, in my view, the appealing thing is that he’s playing the right way. He doesn’t cheat the game. It’s good to score a goal, but if you give up two, you’re down a goal. You need to score, but our scouts sold me on how he played. He ran up numbers in high school (20-34-54 totals in 25 games at Lakeville North High in Minnesota in 2015-16), but in college he started slowly and then picked up in the second half and our scouts feel he has an upside offensively.”

The Dallas Stars selected winger Jason Robertson with the 39th overall pick in the second round of that year’s draft after he had posted 42-39-81 totals in 68 games with the OHL’s Kingston Frontenacs. Robertson has 27-49-76 totals in 74 games this season with the Stars after posting 46-63-109 totals in 82 games last season.

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Faceoffs a strength for Habs

Following Thursday’s game, the Canadiens ranked eighth in the NHL in faceoffs, winning 52.3 per cent.

Sean Monahan was the Canadiens’ best faceoff man, winning 55 per cent of his draws in 49 games before being traded to the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 2. Monahan has won 54.3 per cent of his faceoffs in 25 games with the Jets, while posting 10-7-17 totals to give him 23-29-52 totals for the season.

Nick Suzuki has made a huge improvement in the faceoff circle this season, winning 53.2 per cent of his draws after winning only 47.3 per cent last season. Jake Evans is winning 52.4 per cent of his faceoffs this season and has been taking more draws since Monahan was traded — including on his off-side as a right-hand shot.

“When I was in college (at the University of Notre Dame) I just did two things basically and it worked all the time,” Evans said after Thursday’s morning skate about taking faceoffs. “Then when I got here I stuck to those things and certain guys would just kill me and I couldn’t adjust quicker. I think ever since Mony left, especially, I’ve had to learn how to take the off-side draws a lot better. It’s getting better and adjusting quicker and more on the fly.”

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Evans is winning a lot of off-side faceoffs now on his forehand.

“I’m just taking slapshots now,” he said with a grin. “It worked the last game.”

Evans won 10 of his 17 faceoffs (59 per cent) in Colorado and won 10 of 18 faceoffs (56 per cent) against the Flyers.

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Mr. Nice Guy

I wrote a column over the holidays in December about Canadiens goaltender Samuel Montembeault receiving a homemade Christmas card from Jeremy Mylo, who is one of his biggest fans.

Mylo, 26, has Down syndrome and a severe speech disorder, which makes it difficult for him to communicate. Mylo absolutely loves the Canadiens and is a regular at the team’s practice rink in Brossard, waiting outside to get photographs with the players. He has a huge collection of those photos on his Facebook page.

“Every single time I’ve been there with Jeremy, Sam Montembeault stops — 100 per cent of the time,” said Jeremy’s mother, Lindi Ross. “I want to call his mother and just congratulate her on what an amazing young man he is. I think he’s Jean Béliveau in terms of what I’ve experienced with him. His energy is beautiful. He’s in my heart. He makes my son so happy and that makes me happy.”

So, I wasn’t surprised when I saw the video below of the goalie giving his stick to a young fan wearing a Montembeault Canadiens sweater after the team’s pregame warmup Thursday night.

The video made Xhekaj’s mother — and others, I’m sure —  cry.

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Happy ending to three-goalie situation

It certainly looks like the three-goalie rotation the Canadiens had up until the NHL trade deadline on March 8 didn’t hurt Cayden Primeau, Montembeault or Jake Allen.

Primeau stopped 29 of the 30 shots he faced in the win over the Flyers and came within 61 seconds of recording his third straight shutout at the Bell Centre. The 24-year-old improved his record this season to 8-7-2 with a 2.75 goals-against average and a .913 save percentage.

Montembeault stopped 27 of the 28 shots he faced in Tuesday’s win over the Avalanche, improving his record to 14-13-7 with a 3.06 GAA and a .905 save percentage.

Meanwhile, Allen has been playing fantastic since being traded to the New Jersey Devils at the deadline, posting a 4-2-0 record with a 2.51 GAA and a .925 save percentage.

After Thursday’s morning skate, St. Louis talked about the effect the veteran Allen had on Primeau and Montembeault.

“I think Jake has a huge influence on where they are today,” St. Louis said. “I think Jake is a competitor, but where he is in his career he was a great leader for those guys. I know (there was) plenty of discussion, talking about the art of goaltending, but also how Jake conducted himself around teammates and stuff. I think it has rubbed off on these two young goalies. So it’s nice for the young goalies to see such a great example at a young age and help them mould to become the goalie they want to become, but also the teammate that they should become.

“I always say the best part about leadership is passing it down,” St. Louis added. “I think he’s done that with these guys and I think it’s going to help them tremendously.”

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