Canadiens focused on turning hot start into a winning culture

Brendan Gallagher scored with less than 10 seconds left in regulation to break a 2-2 tie and get the Canadiens the 3-2 win over the Blues.

BROSSARD, Que.,–The Montreal Canadiens skated the ice into oblivion at their south-shore practice facility on Thursday.

Nothing a good Zamboni job won’t fix, but we’re bringing it up because they didn’t necessarily have to do that. With nearly three full days to spare between Wednesday night’s 3-2 win over the St. Louis Blues and this coming Saturday’s game against the Ottawa Senators, it would have been understandable if the Canadiens took Thursday off. They had earned it by beating the Pittsburgh Penguins, Detroit Red Wings and Blues in succession.

Instead they pushed through a one-hour practice at warp speed, with the intensity ratcheting up from drill to drill.

It ended with some wind sprints, which followed a three-on-three sequence in close quarters.

When you talk about “creating a winning culture”—and the Canadiens have been putting those four words together a lot since they opened training camp in September—this is what it’s about.

“We’re here to work,” said forward Phillip Danault. “No matter where we are [in the standings], we’re having fun. But when we come to the rink, it’s business time. We’re here to get better as a team. Obviously we saw it today—we had a big win yesterday and we’re back at the rink, even if we could’ve had a day off.”

Tomas Tatar, Tomas Plekanec and Paul Byron opted for treatments, taking an opportunity to rest and heal whatever wounds have accumulated over the last month.

But everyone else, sick or banged up, was participating on Thursday.

That included 20-year-old defenceman Victor Mete, who missed Wednesday’s game after a shot in Monday’s win over Detroit hit him in the same part of the hand he broke late last season.

“It’s really sore,” Mete said before adding, “but it’s strong, and I didn’t want to miss anything.”

A glimpse of Karl Alzner skating in his spot against St. Louis was enough to bring Mete back to the ice in a hurry.

The internal competition that’s taken hold has undoubtedly contributed greatly to Montreal’s (unexpected) 4-1-1 start to the season. Alzner, who signed a five-year, $23.125-million contract just a year ago, was scratched for the first five games. Plekanec had to sit for three games before getting a chance to play games 999, 1000 and 1001 of his career. Matthew Peca, who signed a two-year, $2.6 million contract this past summer, played three mediocre games to start the season and was scratched from Montreal’s fourth.

Don’t be surprised if Charles Hudon, who accumulated points in consecutive games from Montreal’s fourth line, is the odd man out on Saturday after two penalties taken in the win over St. Louis nearly cost his team points in the standings.

“We’re all pushing each other,” said Nicolas Deslauriers, who will fight to take his job back when he returns next week from a facial fracture suffered in exhibition. “That’s what good teams do.”

Good teams also don’t rest on their laurels when things are going well.

It’s why when Canadiens coach Claude Julien was asked after Wednesday’s game what he was most proud of with regards to his team’s hot start, he replied, “I’m not proud.”

“Right now I’m not proud of anything, because it’s only six games,” Julien said. “I’m glad with the way things are going, but there’s no reason to get carried away with where we are. I think there’s still lots to accomplish. I’m happy with the start of the season, but it stops there. We have to keep plugging away. And there’s a lot of good things happening, and I could be proud of a lot of things. But I prefer being humble in these situations where things can change quickly.”

That’s the attitude the Canadiens are trying to cultivate from top down, and it’s permeating throughout the organization.

Earlier this week, Joel Bouchard, who coaches Montreal’s AHL affiliate, put his team on blast for what he felt was a sub-standard effort at practice following a loss last Saturday.

“I’m sorry, but I’m not accepting that,” said the Laval Rocket bench boss on Tuesday. “We have work to do, and I was demanding work for just 40 minutes of practice. If they’re not capable of doing that, I’m stopping after 26 and we’re starting over tomorrow. I’m not wasting my time on the ice.”

Bouchard did indeed cut practice at the 26-minute mark, but he wasn’t done talking about what he’s trying to instill in his team.

“It’s funny, all I heard for three days [around Montreal and Laval] was about how Tomas Plekanec is a true professional,” Bouchard said. “He’s made several millions in his career and he’s made it to 1,000 games. Everyone’s talking about how good he was in practices, how he prepared with such attention to detail. As far as I know, none of these guys have played 1,000 games in the NHL. But they can act like professionals, unlike they did today.”

The message was clearly received, with the Rocket jumping out to a 4-0 lead before pulling out a 5-2 win over the Hartford Wolfpack and improving their record to 3-2 on Wednesday.

Neither the Rocket nor the Canadiens are expected to be world-beaters in their respective leagues this season, but the mandate from general manager Marc Bergevin is for everyone in place to help build towards a brighter future for the organization.

What’s clear right off the hop is that the bar is being set high and the culture they’re aiming to establish is taking shape.

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