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Confidence is key to Slafkovsky's recent success with Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens Juraj Slafkovsky - Getty Images

BROSSARD, Que. — Juraj Slafkovsky can’t quite put his finger on how he’s turned his season around.

His Montreal Canadiens teammates, however, see it clearly — he's a young talent who’s playing with a self-assurance he lost during a difficult rookie season.

"That's what it was for Slaf all along," defenceman Kaiden Guhle said Wednesday at CN Sports Complex, the Canadiens' practice facility.

The first-overall draft pick in 2022, Slafkovsky produced an underwhelming four goals and six assists in 39 games last season before a lower-body injury ended his campaign.

The 19-year-old Slovak also stumbled out of the gate this season with seven points in his first 29 games. In the 24 games since, he has 20 points — including five goals and four assists over a current six-game point streak — while featuring on Montreal’s top line with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield.

"He's always had the skill and the smarts, and I think that was just something that last year maybe got shot with him a little bit, just that swagger and that confidence," Guhle said. "He's definitely got it back now."

On Tuesday night, Slafkovsky picked up the first three-point game of his career in a 5-0 win against the Anaheim Ducks.

He collected the first two with patient passes to Suzuki before scoring himself on a Canadiens power play that’s clicking at 23 per cent — good for ninth in the league — since he joined the top unit on Dec. 4.

"I knew how to make all these plays before already, I just wasn't maybe quite as confident before to make them," Slafkovsky said. "Now I'm playing more with the puck and getting more opportunities."

Along with the increase in production, Slafkovsky is also winning most of his puck battles after continuously getting beat earlier in the season despite his six-foot-three, 230-pound frame.

Defenceman Mike Matheson said the young forward reminds him of his former Florida Panthers teammate Aleksander Barkov, who’s widely considered one of the best two-way centres in the game.

"They play different positions," Matheson said. "But the work ethic he has, he's really hard on himself like Barky was, always wants to improve like Barky. Their bodies and how they move are also similar."

Slafkovksy will look to extend his point streak to seven games when the Canadiens (22-23-8) visit the New York Rangers (34-16-3) on Thursday.


Canadiens general manager Kent Hughes faced questions about Montreal's lack of elite offensive talent during his midseason availability on Jan. 15.

With his play of late, Suzuki is doing his best to show the Canadiens are just fine in that department.

"When you hear stuff like that, I think it's good to kind of take that and turn it into a positive and a little bit of an ‘F-U’ attitude,” Guhle said about Suzuki, who had a therapy day Wednesday. “He’s pretty quiet, he doesn't really (talk about) that kind of stuff, but you can tell that he's got that type of attitude, that he's got that fire in his eyes."

The Canadiens captain has seven goals and seven assists during a current eight-game point streak and is tied for third in the league in points with MVP candidate Nathan MacKinnon during that stretch.

With a three-point night on Tuesday, Suzuki moved up to 51 points in 53 games and tied Tomas Plekanec (2009-10) and Alex Kovalev (2005-06) as the fastest Habs players to reach the 50-point plateau in a single season since Saku Koivu did it in 52 games in 2002-03.

Suzuki (24), Caufield (23) and Slafkovksy have accounted for 20 of Montreal’s last 37 goals and are collectively becoming one of the bright spots for the Canadiens this season, showing they could form a definitive top line in the NHL for years to come.

"It's a tough league, so to have success like they are at a young age, it's impressive,” Matheson said. "You can see this year that they're continuing to build and build and build together."


Veteran forward Brendan Gallagher is back from serving a suspension — and he doesn’t expect to be sidelined by one ever again.

"I've played this game for a long time, not just in the NHL, and I'd never been suspended,” Gallagher said. "I don't think it's something that's going to reoccur again. It was something that, when it happened it was a surprise for myself as well."

Gallagher was suspended five games for an elbow to the head of New York Islanders defenceman Adam Pelech in the neutral zone with nine minutes left in a 4-3 Canadiens win on Jan. 26.

The 31-year-old said he initially intended to steer Pelech toward the right side of the ice before making a last-second decision to lay a hit.

"At that point, I had overshot my angle and you know, it's a fast game, it happened quick," Gallagher said.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published Feb. 14, 2024.