‘Another good building block’: Canadiens end gruelling trip with full team effort

Mike Matheson picked up a pair of helpers, while Sam Montembeault turned aside 26 shots to help the Montreal Canadiens win four straight with a 4-2 victory over the Columbus Blue Jackets.

COLUMBUS, Ohio — It was Joel Armia who delivered the fatal blow. Joel Armia, the 13th forward who was playing in just his seventh game. Joel Armia who parked in front of the net with 2:57 to go and tipped in the shot that sent the Canadiens back to Montreal with their third victory in four games of their trip through California and Columbus.

This one was different than the ones achieved in Anaheim and San Jose — games that showed the Canadiens were able to make some quick corrections after their worst performance of the season in a 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins, but not enough of them to suggest their process was fully mended — and Armia coming through with the deciding goal was emblematic of that. There were portions of the game the Canadiens dominated, with wave after wave of pressure applied until the Blue Jackets broke, and they couldn’t have done it without every one of their players being a part of it.

That was the one thing coach Martin St. Louis said he wanted to see in Columbus, against a Blue Jackets team that had won three of its last four and was feeling confident in itself.

“To me, I want to see 20 guys be part of the equation,” he said in the early afternoon. 

“I’d say tonight I liked all our lines,” St. Louis said after the Canadiens won 4-2. “We got a goal from all three, and our fourth was excellent. It was a team win. Everyone did their part. Always trying to find chemistry throughout the lineup, and we got it tonight.”

Gustav Lindstrom, the team’s seventh defenceman who moved to the top pairing with Mike Matheson for this game, scored the insurance marker.

Alex Newhook scored from the top line, Cole Caufield from the second, and there was Armia with his hands in the air after tipping home the winner in the dying moments of the game.

This is how it has to be for the Canadiens, who don’t have the talent to win consistently without everyone — from their best player to arguably their most expendable one — going.

Armia was waived before the season began, sent to the AHL to make room for younger players and only recalled due to an injury to one of them. He was sent back down and wasn’t even on this trip until a corresponding move sending Arber Xhekaj to the injured reserve list saw him board a plane to meet the Canadiens in Los Angeles on Friday. 

Armia went from scratched on Saturday to inserted on Wednesday, and he made as much a difference as anyone else in a Canadiens uniform did against the Blue Jackets.

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They weren’t perfect, but goaltender Samuel Montembeault came up with big saves at key moments to keep them on track. And then the Canadiens stepped it up a notch and took over the game.

They hounded the puck in the corners and behind the net, began to build momentum, and they put the Blue Jackets in a turbine in front of goaltender Elvis Merzlikins for three minutes at the end of the second period in what might have been their best sequence in 22 games.

It started with 3:09 remaining in the third period, when Alex Newhook and Brendan Gallagher went for a change as linemate Nick Suzuki crossed the offensive blue line, and it was whirling when Caufield and Juraj Slafkovsky joined the party. The Canadiens completed the line change and kept the Blue Jackets spinning, and then they completed another one without the puck ever leaving the zone.

It came out, Johnny Gaudreau sent it down to Montembeault, and the Canadiens’ goaltender immediately flipped up to Armia for another quality scoring chance that the big Finn said he lamented not burying.

“I feel bad for him,” Armia said. “That was a good play from him, a really good heads-up play… He didn’t end up getting an assist.”

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But the Canadiens never let up after that, and Armia came through in the end.

“I felt like the last 13 minutes of the second, and in the third period, I felt like it’s the team we know we have, that we can play like that,” St. Louis said.  “I said to the team today, we’re chasing consistency. And chasing consistency for me is doing the things that are not fun but doing them like you love them; it’s playing the game that’s in front of you and always taking care of the team. I think today is another good building block of what we’re capable of…”

The structure still needs many more in place for the Canadiens to be as stable as they want to be, but that will come with time.

The Canadiens still have to be happy that they came out of the Boston game intent on fixing their forecheck and gradually achieved that on their way to Columbus. They wanted to defend the rush better and, though they still need to work on it, showed some progress on that front as well.

St. Louis also wanted the Canadiens to manage the puck better in the offensive zone, stressing it in meetings Tuesday and Wednesday. 

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“I found our efficiency had dropped off a bit in there,” he said, and that only confirmed what we saw during a 4-0 loss to the Kings in Los Angeles on Saturday.

But it was back in order against the Blue Jackets, especially on that late-second period sequence that had everyone on the Canadiens bench excited.

“You can tell the next line is there just foaming at the mouth like, ‘Let me out there,’” said Matheson.

All of them were hungry in this one.

It took time — and some hard practices on this gruelling road trip — to build up that appetite and build something positive they can carry forward.

The Canadiens need to keep going with that. They need to keep getting that full-team effort, starting Thursday against a Florida Panthers team that rested in Montreal overnight and is waiting for them at the Bell Centre.

“That’s what we’re after,” said St. Louis. “It’s such a hard league, and you can’t expect that we’re going to get it done with four, five, six, 10 guys. It’s a group decision, and we need everybody on board. We had that tonight. And as great as we feel tonight about the way we played, we’ve got to start all over again tomorrow.”

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