TORONTO — Jonathan Drouin flicked his wrist, watched the puck go into the net and finally knew he was back where he belonged.
When the Montreal Canadiens forward scored 7:22 into the first period in a 2-1 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs in the season opener for each team at Scotiabank Arena on Wednesday, he was overcome with emotion. The euphoria he experienced at that moment was a far cry from what he’d gone through when he left the Canadiens on April 28 and was placed on long-term injured reserve with what he called anxiety-related issues.
Asked how different he felt six months later, Drouin flashed a subtle grin.
“A hundred times better,” he said. “My head is clearer, I’m more focused, I’m more ready when the game’s there. I don’t want to go into details, but being at the rink was different than it has been for me the last couple of years.”
The 26-year-old scored 23 points (two goals, 21 assists) in 44 games last season before his departure and did not participate in the Canadiens’ run to the Stanley Cup Final, when they lost in five games to the Tampa Bay Lightning. At the time of his departure, he had 232 points (69 goals, 163 assists) in 393 NHL games with the Canadiens and Lightning.
Drouin’s teammates embraced his return during training camp last month. And when he scored Montreal’s first goal of the new season by converting a 2-on-1 with linemate Josh Anderson, he was mobbed.
“It was a nice relief to obviously get a goal,” Drouin said. “Before last year, I was being told to score more goals and blah blah blah, so for me, it was really nice to get one.
“But I wish we could have gotten the two points instead.”
Goalie Jake Allen said Drouin’s goal was a feel-good moment for the Canadiens.
“You know, the hard times he’s gone through the past five or six months, getting his feet under him again, very deserving of that goal,” Allen said. “I’m very happy for him.”
As the puck crossed the goal line, players on the Canadiens bench jumped up and began hugging and high-fiving each other. This was more than a first-period goal in the team’s first of 82 regular-season games. This was an indication Drouin was back, mentally and physically.
“For sure,” coach Dominique Ducharme said. “Look, they care a lot. They cared a lot when it happened, when he went away. They kept in touch with him.
“To see him getting rewarded like that and getting the first goal of the season was nice. You could feel the guys were happy for him.”