LONDON, ON - There's something very special about the crop of Canadiens young guns competing at the 2016 Rookie Tournament in Southwestern Ontario this weekend.
They're clearly a resilient and spirited bunch. That was certainly evident on Friday afternoon at Budweiser Gardens.
After falling behind by a goal to the Pittsburgh Penguins' top prospects just 21 seconds into the opening frame, they refused to let it get them down. Skating to the dressing room down 1-0 through 20 minutes of play, they rallied back with five straight goals of their own en route to eventually securing an 8-3 win to kick off the second annual event in style.
Video: Nikita Scherbak scores a beauty
The top line of Artturi Lehkonen, Michael McCarron and Nikita Scherbak led the way by combining for three goals and eight points, including a Scherbak tally to cap the scoring in the third period that absolutely electrified the crowd - and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter alike.
"It was fun to see the chemistry between them take shape," said Martin Lapointe, the Canadiens' director of player development, who served as the squad's bench boss on Friday. "Those three guys all have good hockey sense. They know how to make good plays. They really stood out in the second and third periods."
For his part, McCarron chipped in with two goals of his own. The former London Knights standout - who will sport the "C" on his jersey for the duration of the tournament - couldn't help but notice the incredible group dynamic that already exists inside the locker room.
Video: Johnston on his two-goal game
"The guys were buzzing tonight. We weathered the storm early. Our tender, Lindy [Charlie Lindgren], held us in the game for the first 10 to 15 minutes of that first period. We were really struggling, but everybody came together in that room. As you can see, everybody's good friends and it translates on the ice," shared McCarron, one of six Canadiens players to put up a multi-point effort against the Penguins. "Everybody in there is a leader. We have a great group."
Defenseman Ryan Johnston shared similar thoughts in the aftermath of a rather decisive victory. Like McCarron, the 24-year-old Sudbury, ON native lit the lamp on two occasions in the tournament opener and made plenty of people take notice of his capabilities at both ends of the rink.
"It feels good. I remember last year we didn't get off to the best start we wanted, but it's a different group of guys. I thought we responded really well. The first 10 minutes wasn't our best game, but then we were coming together, working together and we found success," said Johnston, whose confidence continues to grow year after year. "I always believe in myself, no matter what happened the year before. I always come out even keel and think that I have a shot. I think that's showing."
Accustomed to - and particularly comfortable with - flying under the proverbial radar, Johnston says a three-game stint in the big leagues in April gave him an important boost heading into the offseason, one that is already paying dividends at the outset of rookie camp.
"Anything you can take from playing [in the NHL] is always valuable. Those three games that I got in helped me immensely, especially with confidence. It gave me this self-awareness that I could possibly play at this level," confided Johnston, who is both humble and happy-go-lucky in nature. "I don't really care about being in the shadows. Other guys can have the spotlight. I've just got to stick to my game."
Fortunately, the Canadiens' prospects will have a chance to keep all of those good vibes rolling on Saturday night when they go up against some of the brightest youngsters in the Toronto Maple Leafs' organization, rekindling an Original Six matchup that will undoubtedly produce an entertaining affair.