They were wise words from a long-time pro scout, offered to me ahead of the 2020 Stanley Cup Playoffs, and they resonate right now.
“It’s the team that sticks most to its identity that usually wins,” he said.
And the team that strays too far from it gets embarrassed, like the Montreal Canadiens did in their 3-1 loss to the Calgary Flames on Saturday. They were rested, prepared properly for the game, but every single player seemed to be looking to the person next to them to do the job instead of trying to get it done themselves.
So, some other words resonate after Montreal’s 4-2 win over the Winnipeg Jets on Monday. The ones Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme said earlier in the day about the team not being constructed to be able to depend on just two or three guys to win games.
“We need everyone,” he said.
The Jets don’t. They have Mark Scheifele, Blake Wheeler, Nikolaj Ehlers and Pierre-Luc Dubois—bona fide superstars. They have forward Kyle Connor and goaltender Connor Hellebuyck, two of the three best Connors in the NHL, who kept them in this game on their own and gave them a chance to win it—one of them with two goals that staggered the Canadiens and the other with incredible save after incredible save, including one on a Brendan Gallagher penalty shot.
But the Canadiens are built on depth, and they leaned on it for what might be considered the most crucial win of their season to date—one that keeps them above the Flames and in pursuit of the Jets, Edmonton Oilers and Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings.
Ducharme made several key adjustments to get the team-game back in order. He pulled Victor Mete and plugged Xavier Ouellet onto his third defence pairing with Alexander Romanov. He broke apart his best duo to reunite Jeff Petry with Brett Kulak, who played outstanding as a pair in those bubble playoffs, and he had Joel Edmundson partner up with Shea Weber to handle some of the heavy minutes against those lethal Jets forwards.
The coach also had Josh Anderson and Jonathan Drouin play with Jesperi Kotkaniemi and put Nick Suzuki between Brendan Gallagher and Tyler Toffoli. He pulled Artturi Lehkonen out and played Jake Evans in his spot on the wing. And he put in motion some set faceoff plays as one of the final of several tactical changes he’s wanted to institute since taking over for Claude Julien close to three weeks ago.
And the Canadiens went out and played the way they’re supposed to. Not perfectly, but very much to their identity—as a hard-working, fast-skating, in-your-face team. One that supports the puck and the play all over the ice.
“The communication wasn’t there, the support wasn’t there and those are the things that, when we do that, we have success,” said Anderson less than 24 hours after Saturday’s loss. “I can guarantee you (Monday) everyone’s going to be flying out there and ready to go because we have to.”
Anderson lit the match, diving on a loose puck to give Drouin and Kotkaniemi the play they connected on to give the Canadiens the all-important early 1-0 lead. He then stoked the fire with his first power-play goal of the season, making it 2-0 in the sixth minute of the second period.
Brendan Gallagher poured the gasoline on to force Neal Pionk into a turnover that Tyler Toffoli took advantage of to score his 16th goal of the season and give the Canadiens a 3-1 lead. And Toffoli added his 17th with an empty-netter to seal the deal with 48 seconds remaining.
In between and all throughout, Carey Price played like the Carey Price we’ve seen for most of the 699 other games he’s started in the NHL—calm and in control, with 34 saves to show for his efforts.
“About Carey,” said Anderson, “He stood in there all night for us. He played absolutely amazing, and what a milestone for him tonight to get that win.”
Price, Anderson, Drouin, Kotkaniemi, Gallagher, Toffoli and Ducharme played the leading roles, but the whole cast was worthy of a curtain call.
“I liked what we did collectively,” said Ducharme, “starting with our goaltender, to the defencemen, to the forwards.”
Ouellet and Romanov played under 14 minutes, but they were steady and assertive. Kulak played over 20 and unquestionably had his best game of the year.
Montreal’s fourth line played effectively, while its third line—centred by Phillip Danault fighting through an injury—controlled 50 per cent of the shot attempts at 5-on-5 despite starting 66 per cent of its shifts outside of the offensive zone.
“(Danault) was really solid,” said Ducharme. “He was skating well, he was hard on pucks. That’s where he’s got his best game is when he moves like this and he’s making those little and hard plays. And he gets the puck out, he gets the puck more often in the offensive side…”
Suzuki, who scored 12 points in his first 12 games of the season before scoring just five over his next 15, had an assist on Anderson’s goal. He got throttled against the Flames Saturday and pushed around by the Jets Monday, and he pushed back.
“It’s awesome to see,” said Drouin of the 21-year-old. “Maybe he’s fighting the puck a little bit or he’s not playing his best hockey, but he’s working hard. He’s fighting through it. I thought today he played a great game…you can see the confidence coming back a little bit. It’s normal when you’re a young guy—when things aren’t going well, you’re trying to force it, but it’s not really the play. But I thought tonight he just worked hard.
“He’s a good player, so teams are going to target him a little bit. They know he’s one of our good players, but again, he answered back and he’s fighting.”
The Canadiens had to answer back and fight after a bad loss to the Flames. They had to recapture their identity and play to it.
Anderson believed they’d do it. So did Gallagher.
“I have a lot of confidence in this group, I have a lot of confidence in the players we have to get the job done,” he said on Sunday. “And I think what gives me that confidence is we have a lot of guys that, when we go through tough times, respond the right way.”
That’s what the Canadiens did in this game, and what they have to do in another key matchup with the Jets Wednesday before returning to Montreal for back-to-back games against the Vancouver Canucks to close the week.