The Canadiens had dropped five of six games leading into the Feb. 12 contest by playing on their heels. The speed-game that had them to start the season with a 13-1-1 record had been pushed to the perimeter by their opposition. Confidence had eroded. So had scoring.
But it’s become clear since then that the Canadiens have slowly been working on forging a new identity. On Saturday they took a big step forward in that process, authoring a 4-1 win over the New York Rangers.
It was their fifth win in a row and the most convincing one of the six they’ve notched since Claude Julien took over from Michel Therrien as head coach just two days after the Boston debacle.
Julien talked at length on Friday about the building blocks he has been trying to put in place since the team’s 3-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets in his debut on Feb. 18. He said his immediate focus was on the defensive side of the puck.
"The biggest thing is we call it a bit of a swarm, which all teams do," said Julien. "When the puck’s in the corner we’re trying to outnumber teams. If there’s two in there, we’re three. But we’re tight. We’re not giving them an opportunity to make plays. I think we’re closing the play a little quicker, so instead of being passive to give you some second layers and third layers. That’s what we’ve done. I think we’ve closed the play a little quicker."
The next step for Julien was getting the transition from defence to offence in order. It took time.
"We were having trouble getting our breakouts from that swarm," he said. "So now we’re getting used to understanding that our wingers are low, we can’t just rim the pick hard to the boards. We either make soft rims or we skate with it until a player’s out there."
It was Canadiens forward Andrew Shaw who had said days earlier that the Canadiens were trying to establish an aggressive forecheck once the breakout had been properly executed. He had said that was going to be paramount to unlocking the team’s offence.
The signs of progress were incremental until Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin snapped into action ahead of the trade deadline.
Bergevin swapped out David Desharnais (5-foot-7) for 6-foot-2 defenceman Brandon Davidson from the Edmonton Oilers, and then he traded late-round draft picks for forwards Steve Ott (6-foot), Dwight King (6-foot-4) and Andreas Martinsen (6-foot-3).
"We felt we had a need to add size and grit without sacrificing speed," said Bergevin. Those elements were prominently featured in the game at Madison Square Garden.
It started with Martinsen bearing down on Rangers forward Brandon Pirri in the neutral zone, setting the tone for a 35-hit night for the Canadiens with a heavy one by New York’s bench. King followed with two punishing hits on recently acquired defenceman Brendan Smith.
It was when Ott won a faceoff cleanly in the offensive zone to set up a play for Max Pacioretty that was finished by Shea Weber that the Canadiens took a 1-0 lead in the game. They went into the first intermission with it secured, having out-hustled the Rangers in all three zones and out-shot them 11-6.
The game had that same complexion in final 40 minutes, with Canadiens forwards Artturi Lehkonen and Andrew Shaw scoring goals in the middle frame and Benn adding one for insurance in the final one after New York’s Chris Krieder made it a 3-1 game.
The Canadiens had a playoff-style effort against the team they’re currently lined up to meet in the first round of this year’s Stanley Cup playoffs, making it a clean three-game sweep over the Rangers this season.
They had been building towards this type of performance.
"When I came here things weren’t going well," said Julien Friday. "I’m not going to say they hit bottom, but their confidence was really low. Well, it’s pretty hard to turn things over quickly. We go step-by-step, and as I mentioned: I think defensively we’ve tightened up, which has given us a chance to win every night."
It’s a change that brought confidence back to Price’s game. The goaltender is 5-1 and has put up a .949 save percentage since Julien was hired.
His teammates will take confidence from managing four goals on Saturday without one of them coming from leading scorer Pacioretty, who has 31 on the season. It’s a bonus they were also able to do it without Alexander Radulov, who has been the team’s main offensive catalyst this season.
Radulov missed Saturday’s game with a lower-body injury, which has him out day-to-day. The hope has to be that he’ll return soon to a team that’s come that much further along in its transformation.