“I don’t need a star, I’ll take the win.”
MONTREAL— You know, when you think about it, 1,200 is an odd milestone to celebrate.
It’s why Montreal Canadiens coach Claude Julien was indifferent about that nice, round number when he was asked about it the day before squaring off against his old team, the Boston Bruins, who arrived in Montreal on Tuesday with the NHL’s second-best record and with just a single regulation-time loss through their first 14 games.
But 1,199 games of experience behind an NHL bench for Julien was the biggest reason the Canadiens walked away with two points in the bank.
The most glaring evidence of the fact was a decision Julien made in the sixth minute of the third period, with the Canadiens and Bruins tied at 4-4.
Boston’s Charlie Coyle straddled the offensive blue line while he was waiting for a pass to bounce off his skate and to his stick. He got the puck, dished it off, went to the net and was rewarded with a goal through Canadiens goaltender Carey Price’s legs.
Julien waited for the intel to come in from his video coaches and what came back to him was that they thought the play might be offside.
Not exactly what you want to hear when you’re mulling over a coach’s challenge that can cost you a penalty if you’re wrong.
“I can say that the radio was pretty much silent tonight from that end,” Julien said. “There wasn’t anyone really willing to say anything definitive.”
“When it’s as close as it was tonight, it’s the coach’s decision,” Julien added.
He made the right one, the momentum turned back in Montreal’s favour, and less than three minutes later Ben Chiarot put a harmless-looking shot past Tuukka Rask for a goal that gave his team a 5-4 lead they never relinquished.
Like we suggested, that was the most glaring evidence that Julien’s coaching made the difference in this game. A definitive turning point, without question.
There were less obvious contributing factors, too.
Julien’s decision to pair Shea Weber and Chiarot together on Tuesday morning and giving them assignment –along with forwards Tomas Tatar, Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher — to square off at 5-on-5 against the NHL’s undisputed best line of Brad Marchand, Patrice Bergeron and David Pastrnak was definitely one of them.
The result? Marchand, Bergeron and Pastrnak were held to zero shots on net and just two blocked attempts through the first period. They had five attempts in the second, and in the third — with the Bruins pressing to tie the game — they were held largely in check.
“At the end of the day, to be efficient against a line like Bergeron’s, the best way is to play in their end,” Julien said.
The Danault line finished with a 58-per cent share of the shot attempts at 5-on-5, and Weber and Chiarot were around 55 per cent. Mission accomplished on that end.
Julien’s decision to use reliable fourth-line centre Nate Thompson to take key faceoffs in the defensive zone and to fill in with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen as an alternate shutdown option against the Bergeron line was another smart one.
Thompson rewarded his coach’s trust by playing 17:16 and winning eight of his 14 faceoffs and four-of-seven in the defensive zone. The 35-year-old also won 50 per cent of his draws against Bergeron, finished the game a plus-1 and skated a heroic shift in the final minute of play.
There were a few other things Julien did to manage this game — allowing the Canadiens to take advantage of a Bruins team that came to play less than 24 hours after a hard-fought 6-4 over the Pittsburgh Penguins —
that stood out.
• He paired Victor Mete with Jeff Petry and the undersized 21-year-old defenceman responded by scoring two goals.
• He put Ryan Poehling with Lehkonen and Byron and picked his spots to integrate the rookie into his second-ever NHL game. Poehling finished plus-1 and was sheltered heavily against a potent Bruins team.
• He shortened his bench in the third period and focused on the matchups.
What did Byron think of Julien’s game plan?
“It was amazing,” the plucky winger — who scored his first goal of the season in the game — said. “He’s a great coach. You don’t win a Stanley Cup because you’re not a great coach. I think he knows that team pretty well. He got our whole team rallied, we all regrouped. We had a great practice yesterday and our focus was there today and I think I saw it was his (1,200th game) coaching tonight and it was against his old team, and we all played pretty hard for him tonight. Pretty happy to get the win for him.”
Julien was elated.
“The biggest thing for me in coaching 1,200 games is I still have that same passion, I still have that same fire of coming into the rink every day to do the job,” he said. “And it hasn’t even dwindled at all. It’s not like I’ve gotten a little more comfortable. Not at all. It’s just that’s the part that I think, when I say (it) surprises me and keeps me going, is the fact that I look forward to working with players every day and getting behind the bench and coaching.”
The 59-year-old looked practically embarrassed when his face appeared on the Jumbotron at centre ice in recognition of this milestone. He tried to ignore it before finally giving a wave to acknowledge the praise from the sold-out Bell Centre crowd.
But it turned out to be a special night for Julien — and a big one for his Canadiens, who now have a 8-5-2 record through 15 games.