Canadiens earn confidence booster after improbable road win

Max Domi scored the winning goal in overtime and the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Vegas Golden Knights.

LAS VEGAS — It was the last question Jonathan Drouin had to answer as the players filed out of the Montreal Canadiens locker room at Gila River Arena following a 4-1 win over the Coyotes in Arizona on Wednesday.

“You have any energy left for tomorrow’s game?” he was asked.

“I think we should,” Drouin said.

“It’s going to be tough against a team coming off four days of rest,” we responded.

“Sometimes that much rest isn’t necessarily a good thing,” retorted Drouin.

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It was hard not to think about that as the Vegas Golden Knights opened Thursday’s game appearing nothing like the team that beat the Anaheim Ducks 5-2 last Sunday. They were rusty, and Drouin’s Canadiens came out determined to get the all-important first goal and succeeded in doing so just 2:35 into the first period.

But surely Drouin knew that this was going to be an uphill battle for the Canadiens with each passing second that followed, and it proved to be exactly that—with the Golden Knights escaping the first period with a 2-1 lead and carrying a 4-2 advantage to the 54th minute of the game.

It was a miracle Montreal pulled off a 5-4 overtime win on the strength of late goals from Tomas Tatar, Brendan Gallagher and Max Domi. Even if they wouldn’t call it that.

“It was back-to-backs, right? They’re ugly,” Domi said.

The players will never admit it—their pride won’t allow them to—but playing the second half of a back-to-back against a rested team has seemingly become a steeper challenge than it’s ever been in the past. It’s why coming into Thursday’s game teams across the NHL had won just 17 of 48 games in those situations.

The parity of the league and the sheer pace of the game moving at Mach-speed has made it near impossible. And so it has come to be that so many factors have to go your way to overcome of this challenge—not the least of which is having the lion’s share of the luck on your side.

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Here’s what else you need in order to pull it off:

• An early lead (the Canadiens got one thanks to Phillip Danault)

• Your goaltender has to figuratively stand on his head (Canadiens backup Keith Kinkaid made 31 saves, and roughly 20 of them were outstanding—even if he allowed two goals he said he’d like to have back).

• Your opposition has to play poorly for large sections of the game (the Golden Knights came out asleep through the first 10 minutes and were out-shot 7-3, and they blew a two goal lead late in the game and completely dropped the ball on the only shift in overtime).

• You need the advantage in power-play opportunities (Vegas took three penalties to Montreal’s one and the last one lead to Tatar’s goal).

And even if you get all those things—plus the bounces—there are no guarantees. Especially if you don’t do what Canadiens coach Claude Julien identified as the biggest key to winning in these situations.

“You always need to be extremely smart,” he said prior to Thursday’s game. “You don’t want to shoot yourself in the foot by making some costly mistakes, and I think that’s where it comes in; if you play smart, and you minimize the mistakes, you hope that the other team’s going to make those by forcing the play and you take advantage of it. But every time a team wins a back-to-back game it’s because they played a strong, but mostly smart hockey game.”

This didn’t prove to be one of those for the Canadiens for most of the game. They were giving away pucks like candy on Halloween. But it was after Tatar brought the team to within a goal just as a Montreal power play was expiring that they executed a brilliant play to tie things up.

“Sometimes we want to gain the zone so bad that we’re turning the puck over and can’t get a change,” said Domi. “Phil (Danault) and Tomas (Tatar) were bagged, so we turned around instead of trying to break the zone, they got off the ice and we made a change and pulled the goalie, and then we tried to attack as six guys. That’s what we were able to do.”

Gallagher put the puck in with 1:58 remaining in regulation.

And with momentum back on their side, a final burst of energy gave the Canadiens what they needed to pull off the improbable win.

Danault called it a confidence-booster, and a game won on pure effort.

It’s a win that already makes this tough three-game road trip, which ends in Dallas on Saturday, a whopping success. A win against a tough team in a tough building to play in, and it gives the Canadiens a 7-4-2 record on the season.

“We’ll take it,” said Domi.

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