MONTREAL — Like everyone else at the Bell Centre, Claude Julien watched the pre-game video dedicated to Max Pacioretty with great interest.
Pacioretty, now a member of the Vegas Golden Knights, was Julien’s captain last year, but the Montreal Canadiens coach was only around for about a year and a half of Pacioretty’s tenure with the club. As such, he was legitimately interested to see some of the highlights on the big screen that he didn’t personally witness. Julien said Pacioretty deserved every bit of the ovation he received from the crowd and was happy to see his own players stand and bang sticks on the boards in appreciation of their old teammate.
At game’s end, though, they were all back to loving the new guy.
Tomas Tatar, who was not the prized piece coming back in the transaction that sent Pacioretty to the Knights, scored the game-winner in a back-and-forth 5-4 victory for the home team on Saturday night. Before the game, Pacioretty said he’s been able to turn the page and start fresh with Vegas. It’s safe to say the Habs are pretty cool with the next chapter, too.
“There’s a decision that was made and we moved on,” Julien said of the trade that was supposed to be all about getting prospect Nick Suzuki from Vegas just before training camp. “But now we’ve got a guy by the name of Tatar who’s come from that organization who continues to produce for us. I call him a warrior [because of] the way he comes to play. He’s a hockey warrior and he’s got a great attitude.”
Especially when there’s a little extra something on the line. While all the focus was naturally on Pacioretty returning to the city he starred in for so many years, Tatar certainly had something to prove to the franchise that acquired him from Detroit at last year’s trade deadline, but opted to scratch him for most of the playoffs when he failed to blend in with the “Golden Misfits.”
“I was extremely motivated to beat my old teammates,” he said with a grin.
The fact Tatar sits second in team scoring with 15 points in 17 games seems like an out-of-the-blue development, likely because it’s easier to remember his recent struggles with Vegas rather than his steady production for a Red Wings team that was slipping into mediocrity and worse during his time in the Motor City.
For the reasons Julien cited, though, Tatar has been a reliable top-six producer for the majority of his career. As such, maybe the bigger revelation — at least on this night — is the production Montreal got from easy-to-overlook Andrew Shaw and — even more critically — the steady play from defenceman David Schlemko, who you could almost forget even belonged to the club following another deal with Vegas in 2017.
Making his season debut after being sidelined with a knee injury sustained late in training camp, Schlemko was a stabilizing presence on a defence that was beginning to really wobble in recent outings. While Vegas was still able to find the net four times against usual backup Antti Niemi — marking the third consecutive game the Habs have surrendered at least four goals — Schlemko looked like the poised blueliner he came advertised as when the Canadiens acquired him from the Golden Knights for a 2019 fifth-round pick shortly after Vegas plucked him from San Jose in the expansion draft. Schlemko was limited to just 37 games with Montreal last year, mostly due to a hand ailment, so the team and its coach really are just beginning to find out what he’s all about.
“For a guy who was playing his first game in quite a while against a team that really skates and plays a fast game, I thought he did a great job,” said Julien, who trusted Schlemko enough to bump him up to the top pair with Jeff Petry and have him on the ice protecting a one-goal lead in the final minute of the contest. “I have to say that he, maybe, surprised me a little bit [by] how well he was prepared to play and how well he did in this game. He’s just a smart player, he sees the ice well, he doesn’t panic. It’s nice to see him back. We loved the way he showed up to camp and how he handled himself tonight.”
A healthy Schlemko could really change the complexion of Montreal’s defence on the left side and help bridge the gap in general until right-shot defender and captain Shea Weber returns from his own knee injury. Max Domi, meanwhile, continues to be a one-man panacea for the Habs, running his point streak to six games with two assists against the Knights. Both of those helpers came on goals by Shaw, who now has three tallies in two contests since joining Domi and Jonathan Drouin on the team’s most talented line.
Of course, even Shaw will tell you the skill isn’t evenly disturbed among all three parties.
“Get them the puck and get out of their way,” said Shaw, who banged in both of his goals from the blue paint, when asked about his approach on the trio. “Go to the net, because you know [you’re] playing with two amazing hockey players, chances are the puck is going to end up there at some point.”
In addition to Shaw, rookie Jesperi Kotkaniemi found the net and also setup Charles Hudon for a beautiful goal during a second-period stretch in which Montreal turned a 2-0 deficit into a 3-2 lead. It was Shaw who set the stage for Tatar’s game-decider with the strike that squared the affair 4-4 in the third period, as the Canadiens are really starting to show an ability to find goals from up and down the lineup.
That wasn’t always the case when Pacioretty — who failed to find the net despite three great looks and nine total shots on Niemi — was counted on to carry so much of the offensive load in Montreal.
That era is officially over now, though. And if the Canadiens can find a way to get their defensive house in order, the here and now is going to get even better.