Bottom Six Minutes: Arber Xhekaj, the new sheriff in town
Does everyone remember that one Montreal Canadiens game last season against the Edmonton Oilers? specifically, the one where Zack Kassian ran over Samuel Montembeault, and not one player on the Montreal side was willing to do something about it?
Well, although he wasn’t even with the Habs last year, Arber Xhekaj righted that wrong in his first opportunity on Thursday night.
Towards the end of the first period during their lopsided win over the Arizona Coyotes, Xhekaj mixed it up with Kassian near the blue line. They ended up dropping the gloves, and what ensued was a fight about as competitive as I imagine one between myself and Georges St-Pierre would be.
Whatever your opinion on fighting in hockey, there is no denying the electrifying nature of Xhekaj’s apparent willingness to take on anyone, anytime, anywhere. There is value in his ability to make everyone think twice about taking liberties against this young roster. There is value in knowing that nobody can take a shot at your goaltender as Kassian did last season — at least not without answering for it.
It would be problematic if he were a liability in other facets of the game, but this is a player who led the entire team in shot-attempt share at even strength, clocking in at 63.64% Corsi-for against the Coyotes. The propensity for violence is simply a secondary benefit, coming from a player who is already very effective as a bottom-pair defender at just 21 years of age. He is not the old school enforcer type, he’s a legitimately effective hockey player who just happens to be a real problem in a fight.
It is quickly making him a fan favourite in Montreal. He knew the fans appreciated his efforts on Thursday, and made sure to pump up the crowd on his way off the ice.
And his teammates appreciated it as well. After the game, Juraj Slafkovsky, who scored his first NHL goal in the second period, spoke about Xhekaj’s impact during his on-ice interview as the first star of the night. “We are having so much fun, all the young guys,” Said Slafkovsky. “Especially when you play with a guy like Arber that can kill anyone, so it’s just easy to play then.”
Slafkovsky took a high hit from Josh Brown just before scoring that goal, and Xhekaj went right at Brown to let him know he wasn’t pleased. After the goal, Xhekaj joined his teammate to celebrate with some choice words for Brown, and Slafkovsky noted after the game that he greatly appreciated having someone watch his back like that.
He’s winning the support of the fans, his teammates, and likely the coaching staff with his toughness, as well as his overall play. He is going to make it very tough for Martin St-Louis to take him out of the lineup, even once the blue line is at full strength again.
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