Canadiens embracing challenge of playoff position battle

Carey Price stopped 30 out of 31 shots faced to help the Canadiens beat the Coyotes 2-1.

MONTREAL — This was supposed to be a slam dunk for the Montreal Canadiens, wasn’t it? It was a chance — coming off four days of rest — to beat an injury-riddled Arizona Coyotes team that had played a night prior and was starting its backup goaltender. A glorious opportunity to cement their place in the playoff picture before heading into a 10-day break that will allow the teams around them to make up games in-hand.

Here’s the thing about that: If you go back to September, few people in and around the sport thought the Canadiens would be favourites in any of their games this season. Especially this deep in — with the all-star break on tap and 31 games remaining on their schedule.

They’ve been a surprise from the start, slowly earning the expectations that have come with establishing themselves as a playoff hopeful.

“Good teams find a way to win when they’re expected to,” said Brendan Gallagher after the Canadiens delivered a 2-1 victory over the Coyotes Wednesday.

Good teams dominate the play for the majority of games like these. They earn the lion’s share of the scoring chances. They push the pace and put in an empty-the-tank type of effort. Great teams win them convincingly if they do all those things.

The Canadiens aren’t quite there yet, but they managed the game as well as possible in all of those ways and prevailed in the end. Consider it another small step for the NHL’s second-youngest team.

Sure the score finished 2-1, a late goal from former Canadien Alex Galchenyuk was reversed for offside thanks to the watchful eyes of video coaches Eric Gravel and Mario Leblanc, and the shot attempts were 59-55 in Arizona’s favour. But make no mistake — the Canadiens would’ve stormed away with two points if Coyotes backup Calvin Pickard was even a fraction off his best self.

They took them anyway, leapfrogging the Boston Bruins for third place in the Atlantic Division and staying within a point of the Toronto Maple Leafs for second. Their fifth win in their last six games gave them a seven-point advance on the Buffalo Sabres and guaranteed they’ll maintain their place in the playoffs when they resume play on Feb. 2.

That the Canadiens put themselves in that position with this charge says much about who they are versus who most expected them to be this season.

“The one thing you can say is that we found ways to win,” started Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “I know I repeat myself a lot with those 82-game schedules, but you can’t always be perfect, and in order to be good, you’ve got to find ways to win. And throughout this six-game segment that we had had before this break, we wanted to put ourselves in a position where we could be still in a playoff position, and we were, and we needed to have a winning record (to do it). So guys did a good job of that.

“Some games our goaltenders came up big for us (consecutive wins over the Boston Bruins and Florida Panthers saw Carey Price and Antti Niemi combine for 93 saves on 96 shots faced), some others it was… when you look at (the 4-1 win over) Columbus we scored some goals at the right time and we were patient when we had to be. And tonight’s another good example.”

Against a Coyotes team that had won six of eight games and beaten some of the best teams in the NHL in the process — the San Jose Sharks and Maple Leafs among them.

Granted, Arizona was missing its best defenceman in Oliver Ekman-Larsson, who was hurt in the 3-2 win the Coyotes notched over the Ottawa Senators on Tuesday. It’s also noted they were missing forwards Brad Richardson, Nick Schmaltz, Michael Grabner, Christian Dvorak and blue-liner Jason Demers.

But the Coyotes came into Thursday’s action with over 200 man-games lost already, having grown accustomed to playing well short-handed — and perhaps underestimated.

“That’s a good hockey team over there,” said Gallagher. “They work really hard, their structure is good.”

It was on this night, too.

But Montreal’s power-play came through on its first opportunity with Jonathan Drouin scoring his 14th goal of the season. Mike Reilly made it 2-1 less than five minutes into the third period. And the contributions Joel Armia made — accounting for four of the six takeaways the Canadiens were credited for, earning the clean zone-entry on the power play that led to the game’s first goal, hemming the Coyotes in their own zone as precious seconds ticked off the clock — were as good as can be in a game where he didn’t hit the scoresheet.

All in all, looking up and down Montreal’s bench, it was hard to find a player who didn’t put in the appropriate effort — even if execution fell short for some of them.

Now this team rests having established itself as a good one. A team at peace with what it’s accomplished to date and hungry to take on the challenge ahead.

“[The break is] going to be huge for us,” said Price, who has played through most of his 38 appearances with a minor lower-body injury. “I think any time you can take some time off like this is going to be great for the body and for the mind. It’s been a grind this season. The schedule’s not getting any easier, so just to take some time off to exhale is going to be huge for us.”

It could allow the Canadiens to be at full health for the first time all season if Andrew Shaw recovers from his neck injury and is ready to play when they resume at the Bell Centre on Feb. 2. That would be a blessing for a team that’s feeling strong and confident.

“We set ourselves up nicely,” said Gallagher. “All the talk since the beginning of the year was that we wanted to be in a playoff spot, and we’re in that position. I think it’s exciting, but I think everyone knows the stretch run is only going to get tighter. It’s a challenge for it, but it’s something we should embrace.”

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