MONTREAL — It’s not about how you start; it’s about how you finish.
The Montreal Canadiens allowed a goal on the first shot directed towards their net and looked a little worse for wear to start what eventually turned into a 2-1 overtime win over the New Jersey Devils.
That they came out on top had much more to do with the intangible quality of their competitiveness than it did their execution.
“For the first 10 minutes we looked like a team that hadn’t played a game in five days,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien.
It was a long layover between Montreal’s 6-2 loss to the Edmonton Oilers this past Saturday and Thursday’s win over New Jersey, and it would be bending the truth to suggest anything other than what Julien did with that comment. You could add to it by saying the Canadiens looked like a team that hadn’t played for five days for the back half of the second period and parts of the third.
“It’s hard to explain, I don’t really have a word for it,” said Canadiens defenceman Jordie Benn, who got caught flatfooted on the team’s blue line and left the middle of the ice wide open for Devils forward Stefan Noesen to jump into the slot and take the shot that beat goaltender Carey Price on the blocker side just 1:21 into the game.
“Rusty,” would’ve fit.
The Canadiens were anything but in sync before Andrew Shaw parked himself in front of the net and tipped home Benn’s shot to tie the game with 6:29 left in the first period. And as the game wore on they fumbled on defensive coverage, bumbled their breakouts and stumbled on the power play — where they failed to register a shot on net on three occasions.
But the thing is, hockey games — at least tight ones like the one played at the Bell Centre Thursday — often come down to the war in the trenches. That’s where the game requires little finesse but demands absolute resolve.
Even with the Canadiens appearing discombobulated in all three zones throughout the night, it was unquestionable that they came through in the trenches.
It was Phillip Danault winning a battle along the boards and Shaw winning position in front of Devils goaltender Cory Schneider for the game-tying goal. It was the heroic work by Benn and Shea Weber, as the Canadiens were caught for 1:05 in a five-on-three disadvantage, when they stepped up and made the kind of saves Price gets paid big bucks for.
And there was no better example of the team’s resolve than when Charles Hudon was pinned to the boards by Pavel Zacha, trapped by Sami Vatanen and cornered by Blake Coleman but still managed to shovel the puck to Tomas Plekanec for the game-winning goal.
What was Hudon thinking when three Devils players had swarmed him?
“Oh s—,” he said. “I think Claude has asked us a lot over the last little while to start focusing on winning our battles and I think that’s what happened on that play. I knew I had to win that battle because at three-on-three a lost battle can kill you.”
In any situation, losing them will almost assuredly be the difference between obtaining one or two points or none at all in the standings.
That was the point Julien was driving home to his players over and over again throughout the days leading up to this all-important final home game before the Canadiens depart for a seven-game road trip. It’s the right one, too, when you consider that this team — which ranks in the 20s in nearly every statistical category — isn’t made to win purely on its skill.
The coach might not have loved the execution for the majority of Tuesday’s game, but he was particularly satisfied about his message sinking in.
“The other part, too, is who you’re playing against,” said Julien of the Devils, who came to Montreal at 17-9-4 and just barely out of top spot in the Metropolitan Division. “I understand why [the Devils] team is doing well. It’s not by fluke. They’re a good hockey club, they’re fast, they compete hard, and their back pressure, and they’re doing a heck of a job. I think that’s what’s gratifying, too, is we did what we had to do but we also did against a pretty good hockey club.
“Our guys responded in good fashion here [Thursday] by winning those battles — those one-on-one battles — especially when it counted.”
They showed some grit, too — whether it was Paul Byron and Max Pacioretty returning to the game after leaving for brief moments with apparent injuries, or their teammates overcoming the rust and sticking with the plan.
There was nothing pretty about it. It was an ugly start and an ugly finish for the Canadiens, but it was also a big win that kept them in the race for a playoff spot in their division and sent them off to Ottawa with smiles on their faces ahead of a big matchup against the Senators in the 2017 Scotiabank NHL 100 Classic this Saturday.