There can’t be too many people who would have predicted that, but you have to wonder how quickly the Canadiens may have changed some perception about themselves with their 3-2 overtime loss to the Leafs on Wednesday and their 5-1 win over the Penguins Saturday.
"They’re way better this season," said one Maple Leaf to Sportsnet’s Chris Johnston on Saturday morning. "Really hard-working and fast. It felt like they had two guys on you all the time."
Hockey Night in Canada’s Bob Cole mentioned on Saturday’s broadcast that Sidney Crosby had virtually the same assessment after watching the Canadiens out-shoot the Leafs 36-26 and outplay them at 5-on-5. So the Penguins captain couldn’t have been too surprised with how they played at PPG Paints Arena later on.
Montreal smothered Pittsburgh at every turn, forcing six clean giveaways and earning nine clean takeaways. They were aggressive on the forecheck, relentless on the backcheck, and they were fast in all three zones.
We know, there’s 80 games to go and the Canadiens will be in tough to be as effective as they have been through the first two. They’re still heavy underdogs to contend for a playoff spot.
But general manager Marc Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien have set clear expectations—that this team will compete, that it will play with speed, and that it will be a pain to play against on a nightly basis—and so far they’re being met.
The unexpected emergence of Mike Reilly
It was on Feb. 26 of last season that the Canadiens traded a 2019 fifth-round pick to the Minnesota Wild for 25-year-old defenceman Mike Reilly. It was also on that day that we reached out to a head pro scout from a Western Conference team for a report on Reilly.
"He’s a good skater, and he has good instincts," the scout said before cautioning that Reilly was nothing more than a sixth or seventh defender on a good team and adding that he has a lot of trouble in his own end.
Maybe that will prove to be true over time. We certainly saw signs of it in Reilly’s 19 games with the haphazard, 28th-place Canadiens of last season.
But it’s amazing what can happen to a player when you show them a little bit of confidence and allow them to play to their strengths.
After Wednesday’s game in Toronto, we asked Reilly what has enabled him to hit his stride after an exceptional pre-season that saw him win a job in Montreal’s top-four.
"I think it’s just no one’s telling me I can’t go out there and rush the puck, make plays and jump into the rush," Reilly said. "No one’s telling me I can’t do it, so that’s a good thing not to hear so you can just go out and play your game. That’s what I’m trying to do and I’m trying to carry momentum over from pre-season and play confident and try to go out there and make a difference."
Reilly played 22:27 against the Penguins and finished with a shot on goal and a plus-2 differential. He made a difference, no doubt.
His biggest influences on the game? Skating and moving the puck quickly out of his own end and activating in the offensive zone.
Reilly wasn’t given a real chance in Minnesota to be the player they wanted him to be. In 84 games spread over three seasons with the Wild, he never averaged more than 12:23 of ice time.
But he averaged 20:12 per game with the Canadiens last season and maybe that’s where this confidence swell started.
Reilly also credited Montreal’s new defence coach, Luke Richardson, for being vocal with him and alerting him to his mistakes immediately so he can move on and keep his confidence intact.
Domi living up to the billing
We do recall there being a largely negative reaction to the trade from Canadiens fans, with Galchenyuk being a fan favourite who seemed poised to break out as a centre in Arizona. There was certainly some outrage over the Canadiens moving a former 30-goal scorer for Domi, who had produced just 36 goals in his career to date.
That’s why reached out to the one player who we thought could give us an accurate depiction of what Domi brings to the game.
"Everyone loves playing with Max," former Coyotes captain (and linemate of Domi) Shane Doan told Sportsnet on June 16. "You play with Max and he does all the dirty work to get you the puck. He does the things where he wins races and creates turnovers with his speed and his quickness and I think that’s the part that I enjoyed. When I got to play with Max, it was just so much fun to play with him."
No one in Montreal got a true glimpse of that from Domi in pre-season, with the feisty Canadiens forward getting himself suspended for five of the team’s seven games for punching an unsuspecting Aaron Ekblad of the Florida Panthers.
But through two regular-season games, Domi has three primary assists—and boy, did he ever do the dirty work on the goal Paul Byron scored to put the Canadiens up 3-0 against Pittsburgh just 3:43 into the second period.
"He’s a dynamic, powerful playmaker. That’s really what he is," Doan said. "Max Domi at his best makes his linemates all the way better. At his best, everyone else on the ice is better when he’s out there."
Domi took shifts with Byron and Artturi Lehkonen in this game and also skated with Joel Armia and Jonathan Drouin for some, and everyone looked better with him in position.
Doan said he expects Domi to break out in Montreal. So far he’s passing the test—and doing so at his converted position of centre—with flying colours.
Byron turns on the jets…again
A great play by Lehkonen to get the puck turned over in the neutral zone precipitated Montreal’s second goal, which was scored with Byron blowing by both Penguins defenceman before deking Penguins goaltender Matt Murray with a forehand, backhand, forehand move.
Speed kills and Byron has it in spades.
Byron’s goal made it 3-0 early in the second period. He also stormed in shorthanded with less than six minutes remaining in the frame and set up Armia for his first goal in a Canadiens uniform.
A reminder that Byron is being paid just $1.1 million this season and is well on pace to register a third straight 20-goal season with the Canadiens. If he can do that, he’ll prove to be a bargain on the four-year, 13.6 million extension the team signed him to 13 days ago.
An impressive debut for the newly minted assistant captain, no doubt.
Kris Letang breaks Penguins record
With an assist on Riley Sheahan’s goal, Pittsburgh’s Kris Letang passed Paul Coffey as the franchise leader in points for a defenceman.
Letang’s four points on the season give him 441 in a Penguins uniform. Think of how much quicker he’d have hit the mark if he hadn’t missed 186 games due to injury over his career.