MONTREAL — "The team we have now, I think it sends a message to the league and to our own players that we mean business, we’re here to win and we can play any way you want to play.” — Marc Bergevin, Jan. 3, 2021.
In nine years as general manager of the Montreal Canadiens, Marc Bergevin has never offered a more bold assertion than the one you see above.
But an under-the-radar statement he made to us 11 days later is resonating just as much, if not more, right now — as the Canadiens prepare to the play the Toronto Maple Leafs in the playoffs for the first time since Michael Jackson released Off the Wall and John Wayne took his last breath.
When we sat down for a virtual one-on-one interview with the GM, we asked him what he had seen through training camp to reinforce his conviction in his camp-opening comments.
“The thing I noticed the most in those (10) days is the pace hasn’t changed,” Bergevin responded. “And what made us a fast team in the past is still available to our team.
“We do play fast. You guys saw the scrimmages, the practices… guys are high-paced. Even though we got bigger and got more skill, we still play fast. And that’s how we intend to play.”
We’re thinking about how right Bergevin was in that moment, but also about how the validity of his words seemed to slowly crack with each day that passed since he uttered them — like that small nick in a windshield that spreads and inevitably leads to a replacement job.
And we’re thinking about how the Canadiens need to regain their speed immediately, because if they don’t, this series against the Maple Leafs will prove a lot more costly than a new pane of glass.
They’re at a talent deficit against the Auston Matthews and Mitch Marner-led boys in blue. They can’t afford to also be at a speed deficit.
“When we talk about playing fast, it’s not about only the skating part, which, depending on lines and who’s on the ice, we can be obviously playing that way but also thinking fast,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme on Sunday. “Playing fast is not only skating, but thinking fast.”
The Canadiens weren’t able to do any of that as they sputtered to a 17-20-9 record to cap a 7-1-2 sprint of the gate.
Along the way, Ducharme took over as head coach from Claude Julien and tried to institute major system tweaks without the benefit of being able to practise often, and the Canadiens were kneecapped by injuries to most of their key players and fogged by a torturous schedule that saw them win just seven of their final 21 games and none of their last five.
“With the schedule and how many games we were playing and not having that many days (off), the back-to-backs were even tougher,” said Nick Suzuki of the 25 games the Canadiens had to play over the final 44 days of the season. “We want to play fast pace, and sometimes I thought we just didn’t have the legs under us to play the way we wanted. That cost us a few games… Some games, we just almost didn’t have our game.”
The makeup of the group changing influenced that, too.
Eric Staal came over from a Buffalo Sabres team rolling in reverse and he never got out of neutral in 21 games with Montreal. On the back end, fleet of foot Victor Mete was waived to Ottawa and replaced by the lumbering strides of Jon Merrill, acquired for a fifth-round draft choice and prospect Hayden Verbeek from the Detroit Red Wings.
Now, with both Staal and Merrill potentially starting this series on Thursday while a pair of 20-year-old burners in Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield — and perhaps 21-year-old Alex Romanov — watch from the sidelines, you have to wonder if the Canadiens can instantaneously find this crucial ingredient to their success.
It’s at the heart of how they want to play — with five skaters in close support in all three zones, with speed in transition going both ways in application of a relentless, in-your-face style.
“Being hard to play against is the pressure you can apply and the time and space you can take away from the other team,” said Ducharme. “So, I think we’re good when we do that and that’s the kind of game we want to play.”
It’s the kind of game the Canadiens haven’t been able to play with a modicum of consistency since early February. From then through the end of the regular season, they’ve been below expectation in every relevant statistical category at 5-on-5. And this was after they started with top-tier numbers in corsi for percentage (fourth-best at 54.36), expected goals percentage (second-best at 56.89), scoring chance percentage (first at 55.8) and high-danger corsi for percentage (second-best at 60.51).
A return to base is in order, and there’s reason to believe the Canadiens can achieve it, regardless of a couple of slower players potentially dressing for Game 1.
That fast-skating, fast-thinking and fast-playing Brendan Gallagher is back from a lengthy absence with a broken thumb will only help. Same goes for Gallagher’s linemate, Phillip Danault, who’s returning from a concussion that kept him from the lineup for the final three games of the season.
Carey Price returning from a concussion that kept him out of action for a month will bolster the confidence of the group. Shea Weber returning from a thumb injury that forced him to the sidelines in late April will bolster its depth.
Players who fought through bumps and bruises and finished out at sub-optimal energy levels will have had adequate rest going into Game 1, which is essential to the Canadiens’ ability to play their style.
“You need all four lines and six D going,” said Suzuki. “We want to play that style where we just come at you in waves. I think when we’re at our best, all four lines are doing that — applying pressure, creating scoring chances, playing solid defensively. When we’re at our best and healthy, we’re a tough team to play against.”
And the value of five practices in the lead up to Game 1, when the Canadiens weren’t able to have more than five over the previous six weeks, should enable them to play loose and free.
“We’re trying to practise things and have more options so that when we get out there for that first game, we’re going to be mentally prepared and we’re going to have those plays in the back of our head,” said Josh Anderson. “We won’t even have to think twice about them. I think just doing more reps of it instead of just having one practice and then playing in a game is going to really help our team succeed. We’ve been fortunate enough to have some time off here where we can really focus on details and understand what we need to do to make plays.”
It all has to be second nature when the puck drops if the Canadiens are going to be able to play as Bergevin suggested they could. Because they are up against a Maple Leafs team that actually proved it is “here to win,” one that “means business” and is capable of playing “any way you want to play,” it won’t go well if they can’t keep up.