MONTREAL — On the back of Charlie Lindgren’s outdated goalie mask it says, “Grab an oar.”
The Minnesotan put the saying on the mask he wore for the now-extinct St. John’s IceCaps to pay homage to Minnesota Gophers football coach P.J. Fleck, who had come up with it while coaching with Western Michigan.
“It means we’re all in this together, so pick up a paddle and do your part,” Lindgren said after recording a win in his first start at the Bell Centre; a 3-2, 29-save nail-biter over the Vegas Golden Knights on Tuesday.
The 23-year-old has officially started his NHL career with five consecutive wins, dating back to his first game in April of 2016. That feat makes him the first Canadiens goaltender to do so since Wayne Thomas in 1972-73. And it’s fair to say that in his last two games — a 2-0 shutout over the Chicago Blackhawks Sunday followed by Tuesday’s win over Vegas — he’s picked up a paddle and done the majority of the rowing.
Timing is everything. With starting goaltender Carey Price sidelined by a lower-body injury, the Canadiens were going to need someone to step up and provide A-level goaltending immediately — especially when you consider their difficulty in scoring goals and preventing them through the first month of the season.
Back up Al Montoya got the first kick at the can in Price’s absence, making 19 saves and allowing four goals on the first 18 shots he faced in a 5-4 overtime win over the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday. It was hardly reassuring.
But Lindgren put up 38 saves against the Blackhawks and had a particularly impressive outing against the Knights in what would be considered as close to a must-win game as you could have in the second week of November.
The Canadiens had finally captured some momentum on the road and brought their record to 6-8-1 after starting off 1-6-1. They were beginning a week of games at home against one of three teams they’ll face coming to town on the second half of back-to-back games. Losing this one was not an option.
It was clear from the start the Canadiens had that they recognized it. They recorded the first eight shots on net and registered several quality chances trying to seize control before Knights leading scorer James Neal, who came into the game with eight goals on the year, squirted loose for a breakaway in the fifth minute of play.
Lindgren popped out of his net, challenged Neal to make a move and thwarted his backhand by lunging with his blocker towards the puck.
“To see him come up with that kind of save, it’s almost a like a two-goal swing,” said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty.
Three minutes later, Brendan Gallagher completed a nice play from Tomas Plekanec to score his team-leading seventh goal of the year and put the Canadiens up 1-0. Defenceman Jordie Benn scored his first goal of the year at the 10:55 mark of the first period to give them a 2-0 lead.
And it was after Pierre-Edouard Bellemare cut Montreal’s lead in half by deking the pants off Jeff Petry before uncorking an unstoppable shot that beat Lindgren underneath his blocker with 2:19 remaining in the first period, that Pacioretty scored what turned out to be the game-winner just 3:31 into the second period.
That goal wouldn’t have been enough for the Canadiens to hold onto this one had it not been for what Lindgren offered in the second half of the game – especially considering forward Jonathan Drouin was held out of the third period with what the team called an upper-body injury. Consider the level of focus it requires to only face four shots through the first 30 minutes and then come up with 26 saves in the final 30.
“We knew they were going to keep coming,” said Lindgren. “We talked about how hard-working they are. Coach [Claude Julien] said they’re the most blue-collar team in the league, and they showed it.”
A desperate play from Knights forward Jonathan Marchessault gave Erik Haula a goal with 1:37 remaining, but Lindgren bookended his performance by shutting down a dangerous shot from Neal to seal up the win. He wasn’t even named one of the game’s three stars.
“It was his first game at the Bell Centre and he handled himself very well again tonight,” said Julien. “The second half of the game belonged to Vegas, and he came up with some huge saves and helped us keep a two-goal lead for as long as we had it.”
Expect Lindgren to be holding that oar when his hometown Wild visit the Bell Centre Thursday.