What the Puck: Arber Xhekaj loses his Canadiens Sheriff's badge

The Sherriff looked like a shell of himself in first game he played for the AHL’s Laval Rocket after returning from injury.

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The Canadiens are messing with the Sheriff’s head.

Most Habs fans were surprised to learn Monday that Arber Xhekaj, a.k.a. the Sheriff, had been taken off the injured list and then was loaned to the AHL’s Laval Rocket. Xhekaj himself looked surprised to discover he’d been devoted to the minors.

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“It was a little bit of a surprise,” Xhekaj told reporters Monday after the Rocket’s practice. “It made sense from their point. They just want to see me play a lot of minutes and develop my game. … It’s obviously tough. Nobody likes to get sent down. I’m here now and there’s nothing I could do about it, just go up from here.”

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Then in his first game with the Rocket on Wednesday, Xhekaj looked like … well he looked like a guy whose head had been messed with. On a faceoff in the third period, you could see Belleville Senators tough guy Bokondji Imama talking to Xhekaj and you don’t need to be a genius to figure what he saying. He wanted to fight with the Sheriff, but Xhekaj just looked the other way.

In the first period, there was a fair-sized scrum with some spirited pushing and shoving and Xhekaj skated slowly over and kind of had a look. That’s it. Then in the third, Joshua Roy — the Rocket’s star forward — was cross-checked from behind after a whistle. Again Xhekaj strolled over and did nothing.

This is far removed from the dude who fought Leafs heavyweight Ryan Reaves in the first game of the season after Reaves smashed a couple of Habs players. And because he stood up for his teammates, he quickly became a huge fan favourite. And we all love the Xhekaj storyline — a guy who was never drafted, who was working at Costco in his hometown of Hamilton a few years back and surprised everyone by cracking the Canadiens’ lineup last season. And he also knows how to play hockey, not just fight. He’s spent some time on the power play and is not just a one-dimensional player.

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But he’s apparently run afoul of Habs management and is clearly not a favourite with coach Martin St. Louis.

Xhekaj appeared to suffer a shoulder injury after receiving a hard hit from Ivan Barbashev in the Canadiens’ game against the Vegas Golden Knights at the Bell Centre Nov. 16.

Defenders of the Habs’ decision say Xhekaj needs to work on his defensive game and that the team simply has too many good young defencemen. It’s true the team has young D-men coming out of their ears, but Xhekaj brings something to the ice that no other Hab does.

He has a unique job. He’s the Sheriff. Really. I’m not a fan of fighting in hockey, but what I love about Xhekaj was that the team finally has someone willing to defend his teammates.

Sadly, you need that guy. Look at all the discussion about how soft the Toronto Maple Leafs are. It’s not good. You can’t let the other team freely run your best players.

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I’ll tell you one thing. Carey Price would have loved to have a guy like Xhekaj on his team. Remember that game in 2016 when New Jersey Devils forward Kyle Palmieri ran right into Price and knocked him over. Clearly thinking back to the incident with Chris Kreider a couple of years earlier in the playoffs and none too amused, Price started punching Palmieri as hard as he could with his blocker.

Meanwhile, rather than helping his goalie, Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry tried to pull Palmieri away from Price.

After the game, the Habs goalie explained why he started throwing punches.

“I got run over on the first goal so I figured I wasn’t going to take another one,” Price said. “I got fired up I guess. I’m just going to stick up for myself now. That’s the way it is. It seems to be the nature of the league now. Go to the net and run the goalie over and score a goal. You just gotta stick up for yourself once in a while.”

Suffice it to say that if it was Xhekaj and not Petry, the Sheriff wouldn’t have been trying to pull Palmieri away to break up the fight. He would’ve been making the Devils player pay for running into the Canadiens’ star goalie.

One of the reasons St. Louis soured on Xhekaj is because the D-man was taking too many penalties. But in my view, they were often good penalties, not the kind of penalties the other Habs tend to take, which come from lazy play.

What a difference a few weeks make. He received one of the biggest ovations on opening night. A local restaurant chain signed a deal with him and created a Sheriff burger in his honour. Now this week fans are calling radio open-line shows and demanding he be traded for a draft pick.

What’s next? A two-for-one deal on The Sheriff smash burgers?

And next week, when someone runs the newly-signed netminder Samuel Montembeault, who is going to be there to stand up for Monty?

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