MONTREAL — At the risk of overusing the word, it’s becoming impossible to talk about the Montreal Canadiens right now without referencing their depth.
It is their hallmark, their superpower, their essence and it’s propelled them to a 6-1-2 start to the season — with 19 of 20 skaters used recording at least a point, and with two goaltenders not having to make the difference in any of their starts.
Depth is having 11 different players record a point in a single game. Depth is cycling seven forwards through your penalty kill and scoring six short-handed goals through the first nine games of the season. Depth is taking your sixth defenceman (Brett Kulak) out for no other reason than to get your seventh defenceman (Victor Mete) into a game. Depth is having your third-most used defenceman (Jeff Petry) tied for the NHL lead among his peers in points (11) and tied for third in plus/minus (plus-10). Depth is an 800-point scorer (Corey Perry), who spent the first five games on the taxi squad, scoring a goal and three points in his first four games in the lineup. Depth is having your fourth line (Paul Byron-Jake Evans-Artturi Lehkonen) play as your second-most used line at 5-on-5, and not just because you’ve built a 6-1 lead through 40 minutes of play.
Depth is Lehkonen, who recently referred to himself as the slowest player on that fourth line (arguably the fastest fourth line in the NHL), scoring a goal and an assist, and showing up as the best forward for either team in the Canadiens' 6-2 win over the Vancouver Canucks at the Bell Centre on Monday.
“I thought he was great tonight,” said Evans.
He was talking about Lehkonen, but he just as easily could’ve been talking about anyone else in a red sweater in this game.
The value of all of this can’t be understated, as we delved into just hours before the Canadiens pounded this Vancouver team into submission. Not in this shortened season, not with a condensed schedule and not with players riding the NHL’s injured and COVID Protocol lists like a merry-go-round.
As Petry said afterwards, this is important so the team is “fresh later on down the season.”
But think about how important it is in the short-term, too. Think about the energy the Canadiens have conserved with the ice-time distributed so evenly so far — especially with the second half of a back-to-back against the Canucks looming Tuesday.
“Spreading out that ice time where you’re not completely drained after the first game of the series — I think that’s very important,” said Petry, who scored his third and fourth goal of the season in style Monday. “I think the way we played tonight, it allowed us to do that even more.”
Ben Chiarot led the defence with 20:45, with Petry and Shea Weber just seconds behind. Mete, playing in his first game of the season, was the low man on the back end, clocking in at 17:45.
Upfront, it was a spin cycle with Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s line — featuring Perry and Tyler Toffoli — making up for being the least-used trio at 5-on-5 by each playing more than two minutes on the power play.
The whole group revved its engine off the opening faceoff and proceeded to run over the Canucks at full throttle — choking time and space away with a devastating forecheck, and forcing the type of mistakes no team can survive.
“I don’t know how many breakaways we gave up tonight, but it was five too many,” said Vancouver’s Nate Schmidt.
He could’ve said this of each of the three other games we’ve seen between the Canucks and Canadiens this season, and it still would have rung true, with Montreal taking seven of eight points in the early portion of the season series.
The first of five breakaways the Canucks gave up in this one, while they were on the power play, was one forced by Lehkonen, leading to the goal that put the Canadiens up 2-0 in the seventh minute of play.
At 5-on-5, the Finn and his linemates jumped over the boards for every one of its shifts and epitomized what this Canadiens team is all about.
“The thing that they do well — they’re always pushing the puck forward, they’re always putting pucks behind the Ds, they’re great on the forecheck, they compete hard,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “And because they compete hard they give themselves good chances. And not only that, on nights like tonight, it’s so easy for me, as a coach, to use ‘em against other teams’ top lines because I feel confident that they’re going to give themselves a chance to outwork them and out-compete them, and they do a great job of that. They’ve been good at it since Day 1 of the season. So, I think everybody on the team respects and appreciates that line for how they play.”
Take it a step further: everybody on the Canadiens appears to be emulating that line. It’s been the common thread in all of the team’s games — even the three it lost — and it’s the reason it has accumulated the best winning percentage in the North Division (77.8 per cent to division-leading Toronto’s 75 per cent).
“I’m sure when we’re beating these teams that they’re a little frustrated with some of the plays we’re making, but I think that’s just the way we are,” said Evans. “We can roll four lines and all six D and just keep coming after you, and I think we can just be a very frustrating team to play against.”
That’s what depth does for you.