MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens came into Tuesday’s game against the Columbus Blue Jackets with the same exact 9-5-3 record through 17 games as they had established through 17 games last season, but they came out of it having shown an important sign of progress.
For most of the game, the Blue Jackets employed a plan that was tailor-made to slow the Canadiens down. They executed it to perfection, and it became that much easier to do with a one-goal lead Eric Robinson gave them in the 17th minute of the first period.
The Blue Jackets came hard and fast on the forecheck. When they lost control of the puck, they plugged up the space between the dots in the offensive zone and faded back through the neutral zone to eliminate Montreal’s ability to breakout quickly and control the play.
The Blue Jackets played the exact type of game the Buffalo Sabres did in two early-season wins over the Canadiens in 2018, and they nearly skated away with a win on this night.
It’s the game Canadiens coach Claude Julien was expecting from his counterpart John Tortorella.
“I know it’s the game plan for a lot of teams who play against us is to not give us space in our game because we skate pretty well,” he said.
If the coach was smiling afterwards, it was because his team didn’t succumb to those tactics. They didn’t allow frustration to get the better of them like they have in the past. They didn’t step outside their own plan when their struggles through two periods had them entering the third still down 1-0.
And when the Canadiens fell behind 2-1 with 1:53 remaining, they didn’t bury their heads. Julien pulled Carey Price from his net, and they stormed down the ice at 6-on-5, inevitably getting a goal from Tomas Tatar to tie the game with 41 seconds left. Montreal won 3-2 in a shootout.
They won because Price kept them in the game with 14 saves in the first and 29 more from the second period through to the end of the fourth; they won because they put together a heroic penalty kill in overtime; they won because Jonathan Drouin scored a jaw-dropping, forehand-backhand, five-hole deke for a goal in the shootout and Price stopped all three Columbus players he faced.
But what’s most important is: They won.
Good teams win in all different ways. Julien said before the game that his team would have to grind it out against the Blue Jackets to beat them, and we know that grinding it out isn’t the recipe they typically cook with.
And it’s not the first time this season the Canadiens have been taken out of their comfort zone and still skated away victorious. Out of 10 wins they’ve recorded, two came against the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues, who use their size and their weight to great effect in order to slow down most teams they play.
The Canadiens also beat the Minnesota Wild and the Los Angeles Kings, who are two of the weaker teams in the league. But they’re also teams that do everything they can to disrupt the flow of the game.
“Good teams find a way to win against everyone,” said Canadiens centre Max Domi.
“Not every NHL team is going to bring the same every night. Every team has their strengths and other teams have different weaknesses, and we have to make sure we’re elevating our game and executing our game plan first. But you have to understand and react to what they’re bringing to the table as well.”
It helps to have Price do his thing.
It also helps to have a few game-breakers on your side, and the Canadiens have more of them this year than they did one year ago.
Sure, Price has been in place for a long time, and he was as good as he’s ever been on this night.
And it was old, reliable Brendan Gallagher scoring on a muffin of a shot to extend his team-lead to eight goals and tie the game 1-1 in the fourth minute of the third period.
But the Canadiens didn’t have Nick Suzuki skating with them last season. The 20-year-old had a considerable influence on the outcome of Tuesday’s game.
It was Suzuki who faded to the half-boards and bought himself time by playing give and go with Phillip Danault before snapping a seeing-eye pass to Tatar for the game-tying goal.
“The seam opened up from there,” Suzuki said.
“They did a pretty good job of cutting out all of my other options, but (Tatar) did a great job of finding a good seam.”
Yeah. True. But not too many players skating with the Canadiens a season ago would have exercised the same poise the kid who led the Ontario Hockey League playoffs in scoring did on this play.
We’ve seen Drouin score some gorgeous goals since coming over in the 2017 trade that sent Mikhail Sergachev to the Tampa Bay Lightning. But it takes a whole other level of confidence to pull the move he did on Elvis Merzlikins in the shootout.
It takes the confidence Drouin had built up through 17 games — scoring seven goals and 15 points and just showing a determination we haven’t seen from him since he was skating with the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League’s Halifax Mooseheads.
“That’s ridiculous,” said Domi of the goal. “There are very, very few guys in the entire world that can do that.”
But the Canadiens have Drouin, and they have a team that’s growing and becoming more versatile.
It may look a lot like last season (when they finished with 96 points and missed the playoffs), but the subtle differences we see now could get them to where they want to be come April.