Canadiens begin ultimate stress test with battle against Maple Leafs

Brendan Gallagher spoke about how the Montreal Canadiens were handling not playing games for a week and what the team has worked on over their break.

MONTREAL — This will be a stress test like no other for the Montreal Canadiens—37 games in the next 70 days, some of them back to back and all of the others to be played on no more than two days' rest. Bus rides to and from Ottawa are on the horizon, cross-country road trips that lead back to home games played on consecutive days are in the offing and play in a tight division, where the competition is ratcheting up by the second, is waiting.

The Canadiens might welcome the electrodes and the treadmill by the end of it.

Defenceman Ben Chiarot wasn’t exactly spitting hyperbole with this bit Wednesday: “It’s going to be probably the toughest stretch that we’re ever going to have in our careers over the next two months.”

It’s going to be a mental and physical slog, which is why the last week—a day off Sunday, an off-ice workout Monday, practices Tuesday and Wednesday, a day off Thursday and a tune up Friday—will play big in grand scheme of things.

Good habits needed to be re-established, systems had to be refreshed, and the special teams needed an oil job.

So did the bones, muscles, tendons and ligaments.

“My priority this week is to get feeling energized, get feeling healthy, get your body feeling as good as possible going into what's going to be a heavy grind,” Chiarot said. “It's not just the playing every other day, but it's the flying and changing time zones and the back-to-backs. It's your energy and your body, that's going to be the biggest priority in these two months.”

And the Canadiens will hope the practice time over the last seven days will have them looking more like the team that started off with its hair on fire and less like the one that appeared flat over four of its last five games before the break.

On the good news front, Montreal’s last period was a sasquatch-sized step forward—a dominant 20 minutes that saw the team leave Toronto last Saturday with a 2-1 win over a Maple Leafs team that was largely in control of the first 40 minutes.

Whether it carries over to this Saturday’s game, with the Maple Leafs having padded their three-point lead in the standings by taking five of six available points in three games against Ottawa while the Canadiens were idle, is anybody’s guess.

“You don’t really know how you’re going to respond when the puck drops, but hopefully we’re sharp and we can pick up where we left off and we can kind of use the fact that we’re the more rested team to our advantage as the game goes on,” Montreal’s Brendan Gallagher said on Friday. “It could obviously play either way.”

Especially if the Maple Leafs roll like they did in a 7-3 win Thursday.

They got some much-needed secondary scoring from Ilya Mikheyev, William Nylander and John Tavares while Auston Matthews got on the board for a 14th consecutive game and scored his 15th and 16th goals to extend his NHL lead over Vancouver’s Brock Boeser by four.

Matthews’s linemate, Mitch Marner, potted his eighth in beautiful fashion against Ottawa.

Both players will obviously be essential to stop if Montreal’s going to kick off this extensive stretch run with a bang.

“Those two guys work really well together,” Gallagher said. “We know how good both of them are. Specifically with Mitch—he’s very dynamic with the puck, he’s a guy that always seems to make players around him look better and creates space for them.

“If you do a good job on those two, you’re going to increase your chances of winning the hockey game.”

If you do a not-so-good job on them—and linemate Joe Thornton, who returned from a rib injury to score two goals and six points in the games against Ottawa—it’s going to be a long night.

We’re thinking the Canadiens have no interest in a long night. They’ll sleep in Montreal after closing up the Bell Centre, bus to Ottawa to play the Senators Sunday and Tuesday before shipping off to Winnipeg for their first two games of the season against the Jets Thursday and Saturday.

The March schedule has the Canadiens playing 16 games in 31 nights, with a six-game trip that starts in Vancouver, moves through Calgary and ends in Winnipeg obviously a critical segment. April’s got another 16 games in 30 nights and another six-game trip through Western Canada. And May looks like a breeze when you see four games spread out over the first eight days … until you realize the Stanley Cup Playoffs, which present the hardest games of all, will immediately follow.

But the Canadiens are resuming play without a single player on injured reserve, intent on running with the same balanced approach they set out on halfway through January—with four lines rolling, without a defenceman being overtaxed and with two goaltenders sharing the load.

“It’s going to be important for those guys to be fresh and be able to give what they can give,” Julien said earlier this week. “We’re a lucky team, I guess, that doesn’t have to rely on one line to score goals for us, like some teams do. We’re able to utilize our whole lineup.”

Even the guys on the taxi squad—here’s looking at you Paul Byron and Michael Frolik—will be required.

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