Montreal Canadiens' Jake Evans plays in Stanley Cup opener, first game since concussion

TAMPA, Fla. -- Montreal Canadiens forward Jake Evans played for the first time in nearly a month after being concussed from a hit by Winnipeg Jets star Mark Scheifele, but he wasn't ready to talk about the hit just yet.

Scheifele was suspended four games for the incident, which left Evans exiting Game 1 of the second-round series on a stretcher. Evans said Scheifele has reached out, but didn't reveal details of their interaction.

"I don't really want to talk about the hit that much right now, I'd rather talk about what's ahead of us," Evans said following Montreal's 5-1 loss to Tampa Bay in Game 1 of the Stanley Cup Final. "I do want to thank our trainers, and that whole process, they helped me out. I guess just about the injury, I was focusing on not rushing it. Any brain injury is a serious thing to not rush back. I just wanted to take my time with it. I obviously wanted to play, but the guys did a great job, so it was easy to take my time."

Evans was a game-time decision on Monday. He took the place of Joel Armia, who didn't travel with the team originally because he was in COVID-19 protocol. Armia cleared protocol, took a private jet to Tampa Bay and took warm-ups. However, the team decided to slot Evans on the fourth line instead of Armia, alongside Corey Perry and Eric Staal.

Evans played 11:55 and was credited with three hits, one shot on goal and one takeaway.

"Joel's obviously been sitting at home a few days without skating -- I'm sure there's lots of nerves going with what's going on in the protocols with the testing and all that," acting head coach Luke Richardson said. "So we just felt that mind-frame flying down today, this afternoon, that it would be better to get him on the ice for a warm-up, get the blood flowing. Jake has been cleared to play. And that was our decision on that. And Jake played well. We thought he played very heads-up hockey. He contributed on the PK. I thought he fit in well with that line with Perry and Staal, and created some offensive cycling just like Joel would. So I thought it worked out OK."

For the 25-year-old Evans, it has been a strange four weeks. The Canadiens played nine games without him, winning seven. That includes knocking off the heavily favored Golden Knights in the semifinals, as Montreal is in the Stanley Cup Final for the first time since 1993.

"It's mixed emotions. You're obviously watching the team play so well, so that's great. But the first series in Winnipeg I couldn't even go to the rink, so that was tough," Evans said. "That second series, again the guys were playing great and it was great to watch, but you just want to be available and be ready to battle whenever you get that chance. To not have that opportunity was quite frustrating. But as I keep saying, the guys played so well, and [have] gotten to the Finals, and got me another chance to play. So that was good."

The hit that left Evans concussed came after he scored an empty-net goal on a wraparound with 56.9 seconds remaining. Scheifele skated at Evans with full speed and delivered what the NHL Department of Player Safety deemed "predatory" and "a hard, violent check to an opponent with the outcome of both the play and the game already having been decided."

Scheifele categorically denied that assessment. He did not appeal the suspension, though he called it "excessive."

"I'm more shocked than anything. I didn't think it was a bad hit," Scheifele said at the time. "I'm coming back to try to cut him off at the post. Trying to give our team a chance to win. I've never injured anyone in my entire career. So this hurts me, I have tremendous respect for my peers. One of those things I have to learn from and know there's a plan for anything."

Evans -- speaking to reporters for the first time since the incident -- was asked consecutive questions about the hit, including whether he accepted Scheifele's explanation. Each time, he politely deferred an answer.

"Again, I don't really want to talk about the hit," Evans said. "We can talk about it after the season, I just don't want to talk about it right now. Sorry."