Claude Julien knew what he wanted to see out of his Montreal Canadiens on Saturday in St. Louis.
“I want us to continue to play well defensively,” the coach said on Friday before the team boarded its afternoon flight out of Montreal. “It’s an aspect of our game that we need to continue to improve. It’s those details — as things move on and we get closer to the second half — that allow you to win games.”
The Canadiens obliged in a 5-2 win over the Blues. They limited the quality scoring chances against, they held Blues sniper Vladimir Tarasenko to just one shot on net, they killed all three penalties they took, and then they mostly shut things down while clinging to a 4-1 lead in the third period.
Blues forward David Perron scored with 38 seconds remaining, with his team skating for a fifth minute at 6-on-5. Prior to that, five of Montreal’s 10 blocked shots in the game came over that final stretch. Only three shots got to Canadiens goaltender Carey Price — all of them taken from the side of the net, none of them harmful.
And the good ones St. Louis took throughout this one were swallowed up by Price, with the exception of Perron’s laser over his blocker and a spin-around backhand from Jaden Schwartz in the eighth minute of the first period.
Price made 32 saves — including a few nice ones — and the team in front of him did what Julien was hoping they’d do.
“You need a good attitude and good work habits defensively,” he said. “It’s a mindset.”
THE BIG TAKEAWAY
The depth of the Canadiens is the biggest reason they have a winning record through eight games, and it revealed itself once again on Saturday.
It started with a power-play goal from Jordan Weal in the sixth minute of the game. Weal was scratched from Montreal’s 4-1 win over the Minnesota Wild on Thursday, but took Canadiens leading goal-scorer Joel Armia’s place in the lineup after the big Finn suffered a lower-body injury in warmup.
Weal was one of 11 Canadiens to record at least a point in St. Louis. The team, which came into Saturday’s action with 11 different players accounting for goals over its last three games, got one from a forward on each one of its four lines in St. Louis.
Defenceman Shea Weber added the fifth one of the game into an empty net with 23 seconds remaining. The captain’s two points in the game brought Canadiens defencemen totals to 17 this season. The only blueliner without a point so far is Cale Fleury, who’s only appeared in three games and doesn’t have any points after missing this one due to a minor injury.
Up front, Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin and Brendan Gallagher all had points against the Blues. They are Montreal’s leading scorers; three players who play on three separate lines, each of them with eight points in eight games.
This is how a team lacking established superstar talent up front can beat the reigning Stanley Cup champion Blues twice within a matter of days. It’s also how this team has kept pace with the highest-scoring teams in the NHL, with 30 goals in eight games, which is as many as the top-heavy Edmonton Oilers and one less than the explosive Toronto Maple Leafs have recorded.
This depth was expected to be Montreal’s biggest asset outside of its crease, and it’s going to have to continue to be that as things move along.
• It sure helps that Montreal is humming along with a power play that’s now scored on 25.8 per cent of its opportunities. Weal and Drouin scored on Montreal’s first two man-advantages of Saturday’s game. That’s at least one power-play goal in seven of the team’s games so far and a big change from a year ago. Last year’s team floundered with a power play that ran at 13.2 per cent and missed the playoffs with 96 points in the standings.
• Montreal rookie Nick Suzuki was asked how much his confidence swelled after he scored in Thursday’s win over Minnesota.
“A tonne,” the 20-year-old said. “It was a big relief to get that first one out of the way.”
Suzuki’s second one was a no-doubter over Blues goaltender Jake Allen’s glove to give Montreal a 4-1 lead. He had three shots on net Saturday, played 15:30 and was used both on the power play and the penalty kill. It was probably his best game of the season.
• Speaking of Allen, the goal he allowed to Gallagher off the opening faceoff in the second period was a backbreaker for the Blues. It was 1-1 after a hard-fought first period, and the floodgates opened in the second after that goal dribbled by him.
“I’m going to take a lot of responsibility on that one, for that goal,” Allen told reporters after the game. “I think it took a lot of wind out of our sails. Got into their style of game, which we didn’t want to play, but that’s on me for losing momentum for the boys.”
• Back to Montreal’s depth: Fourth liner Nick Cousins recorded a point for a second-straight game after being scratched through the first three games and missing another three with a back injury. Fourth-line centre Nate Thompson registered his third assist of the season on the same play.
The Canadiens have a chance to extend their winning streak to three games and their record to 5-2-2 on Sunday with a road win over the 1-6-0 Minnesota Wild.