MONTREAL — This one had sobering loss written all over it for the Montreal Canadiens.
Coming off five straight wins against mostly marginal opponents — a hard-fought one against the Columbus Blue Jackets being an exception — and up against a Western Conference juggernaut in the St. Louis Blues, who were coming in angry on the heels of a three-game losing streak, the odds seemed to favour that outcome.
The thing is, Montreal’s 4-3 loss to the Blues on Tuesday boiled down to one unlucky sequence and did very little to dull the confidence they’ve gained as a team over the last couple of weeks of winning hockey.
It would’ve fit the presupposed narrative to a tee if the game had effectively ended less than three minutes into the second period, when the Blues got goals from Scottie Upshall and Brayden Schenn to put them up 3-1 in the span of just seven seconds. It had marked the 10th time the Canadiens had allowed two goals within a minute, and on the previous nine occasions their resolve to punch back had been less than apparent. More of the same would’ve reinforced the idea that their recent winning streak had created a bit of a mirage.
But given that the Canadiens battled back with a big goal in the second period, another in the third to tie the game 3-3, and kept coming after Schenn capped a hat trick on a hope shot from the corner that hit Canadiens defenceman David Schlemko’s skate and squeezed its way through goaltender Carey Price to make it 4-3 with 7:49 remaining, there was nothing sobering about this loss.
“You lose some games throughout the season and some of them are really frustrating,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “This one — I feel like at least the guys competed well, and I’d have liked for us to have had a better result for it but I’m not disappointed in the effort of our players.”
Nor should he be.
The Canadiens played with the belief they could beat one of the league’s best teams. Some may not have seen it that way through the first 10 minutes of the game, over which they had failed to register a shot on net. But a closer look revealed they missed six attempts during that span and came out of the opening frame with two more shot attempts than the Blues and with a 1-1 tie.
They also didn’t wilt after allowing those two quick strikes and after getting dominated for the first 15 minutes of the second period.
And about that particularly tough sequence, it had much less to do with how the Canadiens were playing and much more to do with the Blues seizing momentum off a couple of mental errors their opponents made on the goals against.
You have to give credit where it’s due.
“They took away the boards from us and hemmed us in,” said Julien.
“I would say we were playing against a good hockey team,” Julien added. “They’re big, they’re talented, they’re a team that’s been through a lot and gone far — even in the playoffs.”
This Canadiens team is something else. Its defence has been completely rearranged, with a player on each pair that wasn’t in a Montreal uniform last season. On offence, it’s got a whole new fourth line from the one it ended last season with. In fact it’s a whole new fourth line than the one it began this season with.
The team was also playing its third straight game without top-line centre Jonathan Drouin.
All things considered, the Canadiens have done a good job distancing themselves from a franchise-worst start to a season in 76 years.
“We don’t need to go back there, in my estimation,” said Julien.
“The way we’ve been playing lately, even down 3-1 we still had an opportunity,” Julien added. “That second goal gave us some life at the end of the second period and we came out in the third determined to get ourselves back in and we did.”
That second goal was Shea Weber’s 500th point in the NHL, and the one in the third came off his stick as well. Both of them were scored off set faceoff plays, where Andrew Shaw drew the puck back and Weber fired both of them in before Blues goalie Jake Allen could react.
The Canadiens came close in the third, outshooting the Blues 12-8, out-chancing them marginally in the frame, too.
Even with the result in St. Louis’ favour, Montreal showed its mettle and flashed the type of confidence that can help them continue to carry forward on a positive note.
That’s important considering the next challenge the Canadiens will face, with a strong Calgary Flames team visiting the Bell Centre Thursday and a motivated and desperate Edmonton Oilers team in town Saturday.