Coach Julien has set the tone for Canadiens to surprise this season

John Tavares scored his first goal with the Maple Leafs but it was Auston Matthews who scored in OT to give Toronto the win over the Montreal Canadiens.

TORONTO — The real show happened off the ice, and that’s saying something because it was a formidable hockey display the Montreal Canadiens put on to open their season at Scotiabank Arena.

Yes, Carey Price — who was playing in his first game as the highest-paid goaltender in Canadiens history — was full value, with stunning saves on Patrick Marleau, Josh Leivo and Auston Matthews standing out from the 23 he made. Sure, newcomer Max Domi, who was traded to the Canadiens from the Arizona Coyotes over the summer, played exceptionally well, notching two assists in his first outing in two weeks after a sucker punch to Florida’s Aaron Ekblad saw him benched for five of Montreal’s seven pre-season games by the NHL’s department of player safety.

And Jesperi Kotkaniemi, who debuted as the youngest player in any of the four major North American sports, impressed and recorded his first NHL point.

All of that was something to behold, but if you’re searching for the main reason the Canadiens are leaving Toronto with a point in the bank after their 3-2 overtime loss to the Maple Leafs, look no further than behind their bench.

What we saw from Montreal was a true team effort, and it was fuelled by Canadiens coach Claude Julien’s commitment to run an authentic meritocracy.

It started earlier in the day with Julien’s decision to scratch two of Montreal’s most tenured players in Tomas Plekanec and Karl Alzner.

“It’s never an easy thing to do,” he said before the game.

It’s especially hard when Plekanec is a Canadiens lifer — save for 24 games played for the Leafs following last year’s trade deadline — who is just two games away from 1,000 in the NHL.

Scratching Alzner, who was signed to a five-year, $22.5-million contract two summers ago and was riding a 622-game ironman streak, took guts, too.

“We chose to play the 20 best guys available to us to start the season,” Julien said.

He also chose to deploy them based on how they were performing. It’s why Kotkaniemi, who could have been sheltered against what is arguably the best centre line in hockey, was the second-most used forward on the Canadiens through two periods. It’s also why Mike Reilly was the second-most used defenceman on the night behind Jeff Petry, playing 21 minutes overall.

“Whoever’s playing the best is going to play, and I think that’s healthy to have,” said Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw, who scored on the power play to tie the game at 2-2 with 14 seconds remaining in the second period. “I think everyone’s going to push each other as individuals. And if that’s the thing, the team’s going to succeed more and it’s a great mentality to have.”

It led to the Canadiens controlling 57 per cent of the shot attempts at even strength, out-shooting the Leafs 36-26, and outplaying them for the majority of the night.

It also led to this post-game comment from Toronto coach Mike Babcock: “Montreal played with great effort and great structure. I thought they worked real hard. I thought they were above the puck. They got on top of us. I thought they got really good goaltending as well. We had some Grade As.”

“It doesn’t matter how many points they had [last season],” Babcock added. “They’re a really good team.”

And then there was this from Matthews, who notched Toronto’s first and last goal of the game: “They came out jumping, they work hard. I think a lot of people have kind of written them off, but they’re hungry. We saw it in pre-season, we saw it tonight. They work hard, they play fast, they don’t give you much space.”

There was just enough late in the second period for John Tavares to walk in and roof a shot to put the Leafs up 2-1.

But outside of that one play, the Canadiens were stifling.

“I thought our support was great all over the ice,” said Price. “As soon as you close that time and space, it’s difficult for anyone, no matter how good you are.”

It requires a commitment from every player to execute that strategy against a team as dynamic and as talented as this Leafs squad.

That Julien has it from his crew right out of the gate is an encouraging sign for this Canadiens team. It’s one that makes it clear he’s setting a high bar and stimulating a true internal competition.

“We need everyone pushing in the same direction and that’s what I saw tonight,” he said. “I’m not disappointed in any of our players. I’d say some had better nights than others, but everyone did what we asked of them.”

A moral victory? Not in Julien’s eyes.

“We want to win games. We don’t want to lose them in regulation and we don’t want to lose them in overtime,” he said. “We will make sure to make adjustments so that what happened in the end doesn’t happen again.”

You can’t help but be impressed with the tone the coach is setting. You can’t help but think it’s going to lead these Canadiens to surprise a lot of people this season.


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