MONTREAL—If you weren’t paying close attention, you might have missed it.
Even if you were, you might have missed it anyway.
On a night in which the Montreal Canadiens scored five goals—two of them on the (previously hapless) power play—and allowed just one, the single most important minute of their game against the Florida Panthers had no real action to it.
The Canadiens had come out of the first period even with the Panthers in spite of a start that saw them surrender the first five shots and several quality scoring opportunities. So when Panthers defenceman Keith Yandle found his way to the high slot and beat Carey Price just 20 seconds into the second period it appeared as though the things might turn sharply downward for them.
Instead the Canadiens shook off the goal against, locked down the neutral zone and executed two breakouts and two offensive zone entries with precision.
Small stuff, we know. But in the grand scheme of things, shaking off a bad bounce could be a monumental step in the right direction for a Canadiens team that was completely downtrodden through its first eight games.
This is a team that had lost seven straight before beating the Panthers 5-1 Tuesday. They had come completely undone as soon as adversity had hit them in all three of last week’s games in California, and their fragility had become a major topic of conversation both inside and outside of their dressing room.
"We’ve been talking about it since we got home [this past Saturday]," said Canadiens forward Brendan Gallagher. "Teams are going to score goals on us. It’s the next shift that’s important. It’s what you do after that and how you respond. I think that’s what good teams do. You gave up a goal, you gotta move on. You gotta deal with it, and there’s tons of hockey to be played. You see it now—how many comebacks there are; the first goal, it’s obviously important, but if you give it up it doesn’t mean you lose the game."
It does when your confidence is in the gutter.
Think about the process that leads a team down that road. Things get worse incrementally until they devolve exponentially, and you’re left shaken by it.
That’s what happened for the 2017-18 Canadiens out of the gate. It began for them with a series of losses in which they out-shot and out-chanced their opponents handily and still came out way behind on the scoreboard. It spiralled when none of their good work led to good luck. And it really bottomed out by the time they had allowed three goals against in a lackadaisical first period against the Anaheim Ducks last Friday.
Even on Monday, as the Canadiens prepared for their game against the Panthers, captain Max Pacioretty sat at his dressing room stall shaking his head over Ducks defenceman Kevin Bieksa’s stick breaking on an attempted shot that sent the puck down to Brandon Montour for what proved to be the goal that broke his team’s back in an eventual 6-2 loss.
"I’ve never seen anything like that," Pacioretty said.
It should’ve been forgotten, but the bad bounces are that much harder to forget when things aren’t going well.
That’s what makes the team’s response to Yandle’s goal on Tuesday such an important step in rebuilding confidence.
There were a lot of positives for the Canadiens to take out of Tuesday’s game. Price, who came in with uncharacteristically atrocious numbers (an .880 save percentage is a pretty big departure from a career average of .920), played outstanding and earned second star honours. The team’s power play, which was 2-for-32 to start the season, got goals from Alex Galchenyuk and Shea Weber within 1:18 of the second period. They put the pedal down in the third period, getting goals from Weber and from Pacioretty (who was stuck on one goal through the team’s first eight games).
But as Jonathan Drouin and Weber both said after the game, the biggest building block was the response from the team after Yandle made it 1-0 Florida.
"That’s been the tough part lately because I think we’ve had some really good starts and really good periods," said Weber. "We get scored on and we kinda sit back a little bit and I think it sets us back a bit."
There was no waiting for that to happen in Tuesday’s game. The Canadiens took 12 of the next 15 shots on net following Yandle’s goal. They drew four consecutive penalties after killing off Michael McCarron’s interference penalty at the 4:13 mark of the frame. And their efforts were rewarded with three goals in a span of 1:35.
"We got scored on, but there was still almost 40 minutes left," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "Slowly but surely we built some momentum."
Now let’s see how far it carries the Canadiens.