As Canadiens coach Claude Julien was describing the Flames on Wednesday, it was as if he was holding up a mirror to his own group.
“I think they’re well-structured,” Julien started. “When you look at their game, they seem like a pretty structured team. They’ve got some grit, they’ve got a little bit of everything, and their goaltending’s been good. Just a well-balanced team. When you look at their four lines, the same thing—they’re relying on all four lines to help them do the job. So the biggest thing for me that I’ve seen has been a pretty decent structure from that group of players.”
Even though the Flames haven’t rattled off wins at the same pace the Canadiens have through the early portion of this season—they arrive in Montreal with a 2-2-1 record—Julien said after Saturday’s win in Vancouver that he sees them presenting the biggest challenge his team has faced thus far.
And he’s right to feel that way ahead of the first two games this season at the Bell Centre. The Flames are the next best team in Canada (after Montreal) at controlling the 5-on-5 shot attempts, their power play has connected on nine per cent more of its opportunities than Montreal’s, their penalty kill ranks 12th and Montreal’s 16th, and they’ve got Jacob Markstrom and ‘Big Save’ Dave Rittich as a tandem that stands up to the Canadiens' duo of Carey Price and Jake Allen.
And then there’s the talent at the top end of Calgary’s lineup.
“They’ve got some really good players that you’ve got to look out for—especially that top line with [Matthew] Tkachuk and [Johnny] Gaudreau and [Sean] Monahan and guys like that,” said Canadiens forward Josh Anderson Wednesday.
Elias Lindholm (two goals, three assists) is no slouch, either.
In the middle of Calgary’s lineup are some hardnosed checkers—from the emerging Andrew Mangiapane to Josh Leivo. And the team isn’t short on bruisers, either, with Sam Bennett and Milan Lucic joining Tkachuk in that category.
Calgary’s top-four defencemen—Mark Giordano, Rasmus Andersson, Chris Tanev and Noah Hanifin—bring skill and size to the equation. Not unlike what Shea Weber, Ben Chiarot, Joel Edmundson and Jeff Petry bring to the Canadiens’ blue line.
The style of game the Flames play is similar to Montreal’s, as well, which should come as no surprise with Julien disciple Geoff Ward coaching them.
“We worked together for many years [with the Bruins in Boston], and Geoff left and brought a lot of the things he liked from when we worked together to Calgary,” Julien said.
The Flames under Ward, just like the Canadiens under Julien, are a team that plays a tight-checking, aggressive game.
They got away from it in consecutive losses to the Toronto Maple Leafs, and Julien knows they’ll be back on it for these two games in Montreal.
Meanwhile, the Canadiens are focused on sticking to what’s gotten them off to a 4-0-2 start.
“We’ve been able to lean on everybody,” said Julien. “There hasn’t been much negative to say about individuals per se, because everybody’s brought something to the table and everybody’s contributed in all different ways. So, I think it’s really been what people seem to look at our team as is we’re a team. We’re not sitting here saying we’ve got a bunch of superstars. We’ve just got a bunch of good players who like play a team game, and everybody seems to be willing to bring what they bring best to the table.”