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Canadiens’ commitment to defence leads to soul-soothing win over Blues


MONTREAL— The Montreal Canadiens would’ve taken a win in any form, but to achieve one the way they did on Saturday was more than just soul-soothing for all of them.

It offers them something to build on.

The Canadiens came into Saturday’s game against the St. Louis Blues having lost 10 of 11 and seven in a row, with confidence fleeting, licking their wounds. They had spent four days talking about renewing their commitment to defence, about needing to make adjustments in the own end and on the penalty kill, about how a functional power play could do much to cure the ailments of their struggling top guns at 5-on-5, and their 5-4 win at the Bell Centre was the product of executing in all departments. 

Had the Canadiens been perfect, they’d have not allowed four goals in the game.

But they were much better than the score line indicated—outshooting the Blues 27-22, out-chancing them, striking iron four times in the game and out-playing them from start to finish. 

Again, the score would’ve been enough for the Canadiens. 

But how it came to be helps them move forward on the right foot. 

“That was one of my favourite games of the year,” said Jake Evans, who centred Montreal’s most productive line and contributed two assists on goals for Joel Armia. “I feel like we never quit, we never backed down.”

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The Canadiens played a dominant first period but trailed by one after Christian Dvorak was stopped on a breakaway opportunity, which the Blues transitioned for a 2-on-1 goal by Brandon Saad with 35 seconds to play. 

They came back from down a goal two more times before Josh Anderson broke a 4-4 tie by sweeping in Jonathan Drouin’s shot, which was already heading over the goal line before Anderson made sure it crossed.

If you missed the rest of Montreal’s goals in the game and only watched the replays, you’d have missed the defensive plays made to create them—Evgenii Dadonov with a strong backcheck to break up a rush on the play leading to Armia’s first and Kirby Dach’s excellent stick check to keep the power play clicking in the lead up to him cashing in on the back half of a four-minute advantage he drew by taking a high stick to the teeth.

There was no missing Nick Suzuki hiding on the side of Jordan Binnington’s net before jumping in front of Brayden Schenn to create the turnover that led to Cole Caufield’s 23rd goal of the season. Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis has constantly emphasized the importance of defending from the second you lose the puck, and that was a perfect example of how that can work. 

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He had also repeated several times, in the lead up to Saturday’s game, that attention to detail in the defensive zone would be paramount in order to dig out of this winless streak, and watching his team pay as close attention as it did in the final minute of play—keeping the Blues to the perimeter and blocking three shots as a result of properly plugging the shooting lanes—had to have been most satisfying.

“To see the subtle adjustment that we’ve made give us a little more…I wouldn’t say structure…but gave us a little more advantage, so to speak—we’re not as wide open in our zone, we’re a little more together,” he said.

That allowed the Canadiens to spend less time in their own end, but also enabled them to manage the game in that area much better than they had through the six losses they suffered before an improved effort in the seventh versus the New York Rangers on Thursday. 

“To be able to just bend not break,” St. Louis said, “I feel like the last two games we’re bending more than breaking and I feel like the boys have bought into some of the adjustments we’re talking about and it’s helping us to manage games and stay in the game and to be competitive.”

If it worked in this game and made the Canadiens show more like the team that competed well through the first two months of the season, it had everything to do with all players committing. 

Dadonov and Armia were scratched from the lineup for not doing it enough before joining Evans against the Rangers and leading the charge in that game—and this one against the Blues. Drouin, who’s had his effort questioned on many nights and been scratched on others, was right there with them. 

All three players were rewarded offensively.

Suzuki, Caufield and Dach were, as well, with their cold spell lifting after running a far more dynamic power play strategy involving more frequent rotation between Suzuki and Dach in the bumper position and Drouin’s deft use of Caufield on the flank and Christian Dvorak down low from the point. 

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“We got a lot of touches,” Drouin said, “and it for sure generated momentum for our top guys at 5-on-5.”

Dach first took advantage of that momentum for the power-play goal scored with 3:45 to play in the second period. Caufield scored at 5-on-5 on the first shift of the third.

Canadiens defenceman Joel Edmundson was extremely unlucky as his attempt at intercepting a pass directed the puck to Pavel Buchnevich for a Blues power-play goal at 4:42 of the third period, but his team’s penalty kill was far more aggressive than it had been in recent games.

It was far more effective, too, in killing off a tripping penalty on Michael Pezzetta in the first and a delay-of-game penalty on Johnathan Kovacevic in the second.

That’s one more thing for the Canadiens to carry forward Monday against the Seattle Kraken, even if the main point of emphasis will continue to be on what St. Louis identified as the key to getting out of what he said was the worst funk his team has been in since he took over as coach 11 months ago.

“We’re gonna keep what we’re doing right now and really focus on our dzone,” he said. “I don’t know when we’re going to really start focusing on something else. I think that the team, our performance or the way we play is going to speak to me where it’s, ‘OK. We’re moving on.’ You constantly have to remind (the players) of the stuff that is important…”

St. Louis had shared earlier on Saturday that he regretted ignoring the slip in his team’s 5-on-5 play prior to the start of its losing skid, when special teams were lagging and he allowed himself to become more bogged down in that because of a winning result against the Arizona Coyotes and a point earned in an overtime loss against the Colorado Avalanche. 

Five losses later, St. Louis took a step back and reassessed everything before hammering the key points he felt the Canadiens needed to focus on. 

He said on Friday, the key was to stop harping on how the Canadiens ended up in their dire situation and focus more on what would get them out of it. 

For them to react as they did could’ve led to a better result against the Rangers, and it definitely led to one against the Blues. 

“We didn’t want that slide, but it happened,” St. Louis said. “So, now it’s the power of your response and what you do from here. We’re trying to respond right now.”

That process would be much harder if the Canadiens had won a game they didn’t deserve to win on Saturday.

It was crucial for the Canadiens to come through in the fashion they did. They now have a template to adhere to.

“The next game, you gotta do it all over again,” said St. Louis. “It’s an everyday thing.”

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