Montreal Canadiens: The Clutch Play of Nick Suzuki

Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images)
Cole Caufield and Nick Suzuki (Photo by Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images) /

Nick Suzuki has made a habit of hitting another gear when his team’s back is against the wall. He did so in the OHL with the Guelph Storm and has done so with the Montreal Canadiens in the 2020 bubble and the 2021 Stanley Cup Final.

Josh Anderson is currently the hero in Montreal, having scored the first goal of Game 4 against the Tampa Bay Lightning, giving the Habs their first lead of the Cup Final, along with the overtime-winner on a phenomenal individual effort. But I would like to bring your attention to a player whose offensive production hits new heights when his team needs it the most with their backs against the wall.

For those who may not know, Nick Suzuki really made his mark in the 2019 OHL playoffs with the Storm, just a handful of months before making his NHL debut. He racked up 16 goals and 42 points in 24 games that postseason. While that is more than impressive on its own, what made the run special was that the Storm trailed 3-0 in the first round and 3-1 in the second (along with 2-0 in the finals). In the seven games the Storm needed to win to stay alive, Nick Suzuki scored seven goals and 17 points (an average of 2.43 points per game).

This clutch production was clearly not restricted to the junior level, however. In his young career, Suzuki has already participated in six NHL playoff games with the Canadiens facing elimination; the team has won five of them. Last season against the Flyers, the young centreman really couldn’t have done much more in the two elimination games, scoring three goals, adding a primary assist, and dominating in puck possession (66.07 CF%, 72.57 xGF%, 75 GF%).

It was pretty clear to the naked eye in those two games in the bubble that Suzuki was dominant. It was his line with Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia that presented the only offensive threat for the Habs, and threaten they did. The eye test has told me the exact same thing this season in the four games in which the Habs had their backs against the wall.

I thought he was the Canadiens’ best player in Game 4 against Tampa, despite Anderson being the hero. He scored the OT game-winner in Game 5 in Toronto, which sparked this entire playoff run, along with getting the primary assist on the game-winner in Game 7 of that series. He has seemed faster, more determined, more creative, and incredibly lethal in the four games this season. His production backs that up: one goal and three primary assists (one point in each game) while averaging 18:53 of ice-time.

When I began thinking up this article (on a post-victory walk through the Plateau whilst sporting a Suzuki jersey), I really expected his possession metrics to be dominant in the four 2021 elimination games, just as I knew they had been last year. Interestingly, despite the on-ice results, they are not. 35.71 CF% and 44.52 xGF% are both well below his career regular season and playoff averages (playoffs: 46.76 CF%, 52.29 xGF%). The results at 5v5 of five goals scored and four conceded are good (55.55 GF%).

I am, by no means, attempting to write a narrative that Nick Suzuki has been poor in elimination games this season because he, quite simply, hasn’t been. The poor metrics could be explained by the elite quality of competition and the disparity between them, and the results can be rationalized by pointing toward Suzuki simply being more lethal in these games.

If anything, I find it amusing that my eye test and the metrics are so far apart in this small sample. I will, however, concede that Suzuki’s Game 4 against Tampa wasn’t great, his 14.81 xGF% was the worst on the team; the eye test deceived me.

Moving back to the clearly positive angle, Suzuki has produced eight points in six NHL elimination games (1.33 points per game); four of those are goals and the other four are primary assists (there is no secondary assist stat-padding to be found here). Suzuki finds ways to get the puck in the net when his team most needs to win. Two of the goals were game-winners and one of his assists was also on a game and series-winner, though even that was a powerplay snipe that Corey Perry deflected in Game 7 against Toronto.

This year’s elimination game advanced stats are nothing more than a footnote because the reality is that Nick Suzuki has produced at a much higher rate than he normally does while outscoring his competition on the ice. The defence has never been a concern for Suzuki, as he already ranks amongst the league’s premier defensive centremen, not far behind Phillip Danault, according to both the eye test and advanced statistics.

While he has electrifying offensive skills, the production was not particularly consistent in the regular season. He put up three goals and 11 points in the opening 10 games, which was followed by a 23-game stretch of just two goals and six points. He then roared back in his final 23 games, posting 10 goals and 23 points in as many games, nearly single-handedly forging the Canadiens’ spot in the playoffs. In these playoffs, his seven goals, nine assists and 16 points in 21 games all lead the team.

Next. Josh Anderson Plays Hero in Game 4 vs Lightning. dark

Suzuki clearly has a habit of going on an offensive hot-streak when his team needs him the most. No matter the result of this series, I feel very comfortable in predicting that Suzuki will continue to play some of his best hockey with the Canadiens’ backs against the wall.