MONTREAL – In only 23 games, Raphael Diaz made the most of the time available to him in 2012-13. If only he’d had more of it.
Forget second-year slumps. When the Swiss blue-liner checked in for his post-lockout, post-Gauthier sophomore season as a Hab, he did so brimming with quiet confidence, fresh off an impressive stint with EV Zug of the Swiss Elite League. While NHL arenas around North America were kept dark as the league and NHLPA struggled to come to terms on a new CBA, Diaz was hard at work lighting up rinks overseas with seven goals, 29 points and a plus-19 rating in 32 games with his hometown squad in Switzerland.
Grasping that momentum and riding it into the beginning of the Canadiens’ most recent campaign, Diaz showcased a potent offensive punch to go along with his already steady defensive game. With P.K. Subban held out of the lineup due to ongoing contract negotiations, Diaz proved he was up to the task of bolstering the Habs’ power play, picking up eight points in the first six games of the season to match frequent defensive partner, Andrei Markov, in production.
“I felt like I got off to a good year – the whole team had a good start,” expressed Diaz on the subject of the Habs’ 12-4-3 record over the first 19 games of their campaign, before transitioning into the second leg of his season – one he’d likely be happy to forget. “Then, I got that concussion and I was out for two months and couldn’t do anything.”
With a promising start in the books, Diaz’s season was derailed on Feb. 25 when during a game in Ottawa, he suffered a concussion after being struck in the head by the boot of a Senators’ skate.
“I had a one-on-one battle and I was falling down, but I didn’t expect that the leg or the skate was going to come up and hit me in the jaw,” said the Swiss rearguard, who still managed to finish the game despite the incident. “I remember I was protecting myself from hitting the ground by trying to fall on my hands. I knew right away that something wasn’t right.”
The concussion sidelined Diaz for the next 25 games – more than 50 percent of the already truncated regular-season calendar – the symptoms handcuffing him from partaking in even the simplest of low-impact activities.
“It was a lot of headaches, pressure in the head and dizziness as well,” explained Diaz, referencing one of the most frustrating segments of his young NHL career. “You’re at home and you can’t do anything. You just want to move your body, and I was trying something to keep myself in shape, but then you feel the pressure, you feel more headaches and your head tells you that it’s too much. So you stop and wait, and wait and wait and then try again. It was a process with a lot of ups and downs.
“All I could do was wait until it got better,” he added. “It wasn’t that easy to come back in the same shape that I was before. I only had a few games before the playoffs to get readjusted.”
Diaz rejoined the Canadiens for the final four games of the season, stuck using those remaining match-ups not to fine-tune his game, but rather to re-establish it altogether after the lengthy absence. Picking up one assist in that time to finish the season with 14 points in 23 games, the Swiss blue-liner came up just two points shy of his tally of 16 from 2011-12, gathered over 59 contests.
While his first NHL postseason may not have yielded the results he hoped for, the ever-optimistic Diaz is content to chalk it up as another piece of vital experience now under his belt.
“It was a great first experience, and I think I learned a lot of things. It was awesome in the Bell Centre and the crowd was so loud. [The intensity level] went up two steps more and everyone was going at 120 percent as they try to fight for the Cup,” expressed Diaz, already eager to put that experience to good use. “I was expecting the physical play and I knew there was going to be a lot of hitting. It was my first time in the playoffs, but next year, now I’m going to know what’s coming. I’ll be ready for it and I can’t wait for that.”
Luckily for Diaz, he didn’t have to wait that long to lace up his skates again. Passing his medical tests shortly after the Habs cleared out their lockers in Brossard, Diaz jumped on a plane to join the Swiss national team at the World Championships in Sweden.
“I want to go over there, show my best hockey and support my teammates from Switzerland,” he said, before going on to do exactly that as he helped the Swiss claim a silver medal at the tournament – his country’s first podium finish since 1953.
Justin Fragapane is a writer for canadiens.com.
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