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Canadiens’ Suzuki reinforces why he’s on Canada’s Olympic list vs. Flames

MONTREAL — It’s Oct. 15, three days into a season that’s seen Nick Suzuki go point-less through two Montreal Canadiens losses by a cumulative score of 7-2. The 22-year-old is just four days removed from signing an eight-year, $63-million contract and the pressure has already ratcheted up a notch or two before his phone rings and sends it into a full spike.

It’s Roberto Luongo calling. Roberto Luongo, the former goaltender who appears destined for the Hall of Fame, but also Roberto Luongo, hockey executive and associate general manager of Canada’s Olympic hockey team.

He’s on the line to tell Suzuki he’s made the country’s 55-man long list of potential participants in the 2022 Beijing Games.

Exciting? Of course.

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When we informed Suzuki Thursday night that we had become aware of his inclusion, he thought back to those few minutes on the phone with one of Canada’s most decorated goaltenders of all time.

“It means a lot that I got a call from Luongo,” he said. “That was pretty cool. Just being on a list with a lot of great players — obviously, Team Canada is very deep, and it’s was an honour just to be even on the long list.”

But you can imagine how Suzuki might have been feeling following that call up by going another two games without scoring, unable to help the Canadiens to their first win of the season.

The thing is: this player always bounces back.

Suzuki did it when he was sent back to junior by the Canadiens in 2018 and went on to have an explosive season leading the Guelph Storm through the 2019 OHL playoffs and into the Memorial Cup. He did it when Brayden McNabb punished him with the biggest hit he’s taken in his short time in the NHL, springing back to his feet and commandeering a pivotal Game 3 win for the Canadiens over the Vegas Golden Knights in the Stanley Cup semifinal last summer. And man, has he ever done it since the slow start to this season.

Suzuki came into Thursday’s win over the Calgary Flames with three goals and 12 points in the 10 games he had played since starting the season cold, and he came out of it with another goal and an assist — making him the sixth-highest scoring Canadian-born player in the NHL.

And it was Suzuki’s resilience that once again marked this one — a 4-2 win for the Canadiens.

They went down 1-0 just 2:02 into the first period, and Suzuki helped get them tied with a sharp play to Tyler Toffoli that Ben Chiarot finished for his fourth goal of the season. Then Montreal’s top centre got caught staring at another Team Canada long-lister, Andrew Mangiapane, who gave Calgary the lead with a beautiful goal in the 17th minute of the first.

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How did Suzuki respond? With five shots on net, seven attempts and a dominant performance that saw him score the game-winner on a great individual effort that he finished from behind Jacob Markstrom’s net.

And that was minutes after Suzuki was stopped by Markstrom on a shot from a similar spot.

But as they say, try and try again.

“I knew I wasn’t happy that on my backcheck I kind of stopped skating and let (Mangiapane) have some room and then they scored,” Suzuki said. “So I knew we had to get that one back and I just felt the play was right to throw it back into (Markstrom’s) feet behind the net. He was more off his post the second time, so it was nice to get a bounce there.”

He created it with one of the many strengths in his game that has him in the running to potentially play for Canada in February.

“I think it’s just his patience,” said teammate David Savard, who had lots of praise for the London, Ont., native after playing against him in last year’s Stanley Cup Final as a member of the Tampa Bay Lightning.

“I think he’s (got really good) vision,” Savard continued. “And the way he holds onto the puck, he’s really strong on his stick and it makes him harder to defend. A guy that protects the puck really well and finds guys, it’s kind of a tough challenge for a defender when a guy has so much patience and is so strong on his stick. He’ll protect the puck well and he’s a really good player.”

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Suzuki’s a really young player who’s evolving into a great one.

He started with 13 goals and 41 points in 71 games as a rookie with Montreal in 2019-20 and then led the Canadiens in the bubble playoffs with four goals and seven points in 10 games. He pushed his game to another level last season, with 15 goals and 41 points in 56 games, and he surely caught Team Canada’s attention with a team-leading seven goals and 16 points in 22 playoff games.

The way Suzuki is handling the pressure he’s under in Montreal should be keeping him on their radar.

“He’s gotta deal with that for a few years,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme after sending Suzuki over the boards for 26 shifts and 22:06 against the Flames. “He signed a pretty long contract. I think he’s learning to deal with that, too, at the same time. And he’s coming off, like most of the guys were coming off, a great playoff run and a shorter summer. Maybe a little bit surprised to start wanting to do well and expecting to do well.

“Sometimes it’s gaining experience like that—the way you approach the season, the way you prepare for the season and so on. So, I think if (Canadiens general manager) Marc (Bergevin) decided to give him such a long contract with that kind of money, it’s because we know he can be handling those situations. He needed to face that, he handled that well and bounced back pretty well. He’s gone pretty good in the last 10 games, so I’m confident he’s going to ride that until the end of the year. Obviously, there’s always ups and downs in a season, but I think he’s learning a lot about himself too. He’s still young, but he’s smart and he understands, when he slips, how to get back.”

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It won’t be a slip if Suzuki doesn’t make this deep Canadian roster, which will be named in January.

All he’s focused on is playing the right way to give himself the best chance.

“That’s kind of a lot of what we do it here anyway,” Suzuki told us. “Dom obviously comes from a Hockey Canada background and playing the Canadian way is a big thing he promotes with his players. You have to play a strong two-way game, whether that’s on the first line or fourth line. Just growing up and playing U16, U17, U18 and World Juniors, the way gets ingrained in your head and I just always try to play that way.”

As an NHL executive texted us after the game, “Suzuki’s earned Team Canada consideration with his versatility. Whether he makes it or not, he’s a complete and competitive player who is turning into one of the best young ones in the country, and you’ve seen that on most nights and not just this one.”

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