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Rebuilding Canadiens ahead of schedule, captain Nick Suzuki says

"The big change this year is that we never think we're out of it. ... We know that we can come back."

Montreal Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki scores past Arizona Coyotes' Connor Ingram on a penalty shot during second in Montreal on Oct. 20, 2022.
Montreal Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki scores past Arizona Coyotes' Connor Ingram on a penalty shot during second in Montreal on Oct. 20, 2022. Photo by John Mahoney /Montreal Gazette

Nick Suzuki said he isn’t surprised by the Canadiens’ success over the first quarter of the NHL season.

“I think a lot of people wrote us off, but I always had high expectations for this team,” Suzuki said Monday after the team held a practice in Brossard in preparation for Tuesday’s game against the San Jose Sharks at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

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Most observers viewed the Canadiens as a team in full rebuild mode. The best case scenario was an improved product, but not improved enough to lift the team out of the running for one of the coveted lottery picks in the talent-rich 2023 NHL draft.

The Canadiens will have a better idea of where they stand after they get through a gruelling stretch in the schedule, which will see them play 12 of 16 games on the road, beginning Thursday in Calgary. Eight of those 12 road games will be played outside the Eastern time zone.

The Canadiens go into Tuesday’s game two games above .500 at 11-9-1 and Suzuki said he believes the rebuild is ahead of schedule.

“The big change this year is that we never think we’re out of it,” said Suzuki. “If the other team scores a couple of goals early, we know that we can come back. That’s different from the last year, when we got down after we fell behind.”

One of the concerns before the season was the young defence corps, which features four rookies — Kaiden Guhle, Johnathan Kovacevic, Jordan Harris and Arber Xhekaj. The newcomers have played so well that head coach Martin St. Louis is faced with difficult choices when he has to figure which ones will be healthy scratches.

It’s strange to hear Suzuki talk about the team’s young players because he’s only 23, but the youngest captain in the Canadiens’ history has grown into the role and is a leader on and off the ice.

Offensively, he’s on his way to a career year with 24 points in 21 games. That includes 12 goals, an impressive total for someone whose previous high was 15. He also is 3-for-3 in shootouts.

Against Chicago, he employed a move popularized by former Detroit Red Wings star Pavel Datsyuk when he came in from the right side and then shot across the grain. This month against Philadelphia, he used the same approach, but skated through the crease and scored with a backhander.

“I try to have different moves in the shootout because I don’t want the goaltenders to have a book on me,” said Suzuki. “I want to keep them guessing.”

Suzuki has also shown a dramatic improvement on the defensive side. Last season, he was minus-29, one of the worst differentials in the league. This season, he’s plus-3. Part of the reason for the turnaround is being able to keep possession in the offensive zone, but Suzuki is also part of a much improved penalty-killing unit.

Jake Allen gets the start in goal Tuesday and forward Sean Monahan is questionable.

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