MONTREAL -- A 4-2 win over the North Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs on Monday was a great way to snap a three-game losing streak and an important step in the right direction for the Montreal Canadiens.
But, as Jake Allen said after making 23 saves in the win, it was merely the first step.
“All it is is a good start, and we’ve got to build off it,” Allen said. “To me, I think we’ve got a lot of great pieces to this team. We’ve just got to find some momentum, build some momentum heading into the post-season. Priority No. 1 here is just getting into the post-season. After that let the rest take care of itself. I think that should be the mantra from the start of the season, whether it’s a year like this or a normal year, I guess. Just build, build, build and find a way find a way into the playoffs and go at it.”
If not now, then when?
Because the Canadiens have been frustratingly inconsistent this season. After the trade deadline passed, and just an hour before Monday’s game, GM Marc Bergevin referred to them as “a team that’s been at times very good and at times confusing.” They’ve looked like world beaters and doormats all the same and some of them have said in recent days that that’s the normal ebb and flow of any season.
But with this key match against a top rival being the first of 18 remaining before playoffs begin in the third week of May, it was important for the Canadiens to start showing they’re as good as they seem to believe they are.
And that’s something they need to do more often than not from this point forward -- especially if they intend to do some damage when it matters most.
This win brought the Canadiens to 2-3-1 against the Leafs this season, and they’ve got four more games to play against them before what could very well be their first playoff meeting since 1979.
“We’ve been right there every game that we’ve played them, really,” said Josh Anderson, who scored the winning goal. “I think that any time you play the Leafs, you get up for these games and they’re always big games to play. So, tonight I think that we all had confidence going into tonight’s game. After losing three, especially, we wanted to come out and play with full energy. I thought we did a pretty good job of that tonight and set the pace of the game, really.”
It’s something the Canadiens have struggled with a lot, but after giving up the first goal against in each of the three losses that preceded this win, they opened the scoring early on Tomas Tatar’s ninth of the season.
Before he scored his 10th into an empty net, a lot of good things happened that could serve as building blocks for Montreal -- especially in the first period, when Nick Suzuki scored a power-play goal to widen the gap and help the Canadiens take advantage of winning virtually every one-on-one battle and producing an 11-3 shot advantage through the frame.
And the way Anderson stormed down the ice and potted his 15th goal of the season just 1:25 after John Tavares tied the game 2-2 in the second, after the Canadiens rocked back on their heels a bit and it appeared as though the fragility brought on by the string of losses was setting in, was another key.
“We reset and kept winning our battles, and we were all over them tonight,” said Phillip Danault. “It was a big character win for our team.”
Danault had his fingerprints all over it, shadowing the NHL’s most potent scorer, who got away from the matchup for one shift and took advantage of Suzuki to score Toronto’s first goal -- his league-leading 32nd of the season.
But Danault did a number on Auston Matthews for the rest of the night.
“It’s not an easy job,” Allen said of his teammate, who has also played a huge hand in keeping Edmonton’s Connor McDavid and Leon Draisaitl to zero goals in five Canadiens-Oilers games. “It’s a job that I don’t think too many people would want to have, to go head to head against those best players in the league every single night, but Phil welcomes it. And I think that’s what you have to do. You have to embrace that role, and he does. I think you take pride in just limiting their chances, shutting them down. Maybe Phil doesn’t get the offensive chances because he has to worry so much about playing defence against these top dogs, and that’s not his fault. He’s going out there and doing his job and laying it on the line every night, and to me, that’s one of the hardest jobs in the NHL. Kudos to him for having to do it.”
Montreal’s Paul Byron was given a difficult one, too -- replacing Brendan Gallagher, who’s nursing a fractured right thumb and likely unavailable to the team between now and the end of the regular season -- and he rose to the occasion with two assists on Monday.
It was a big game for Byron, Danault, Tatar, Anderson and Allen. Joel Edmundson logged over 27 minutes, Jonathan Drouin notched a point for the first time in seven games and rookie Alexander Romanov had a team-high seven hits.
But everyone in a red sweater helped pull this one together, and that’s how it needs to be moving forward. That’s what the Canadiens were built to do, with the acquisitions of Eric Staal, Jon Merrill and Erik Gustafsson being the last three of nine additions Bergevin’s made since September.
“I think that Berge has done a great job, obviously in the off-season, and he’s made some key moves in the last couple of days,” Anderson said. “We believe in our group. We’ve believed in our group from Day 1. Then when you add a couple of more pieces to strengthen our team, you know we’re all set here.
“We believe, and it’s about putting the work out on the ice and showing it to ourselves and to our fans.”
Bergevin said the Canadiens need to do it with each individual living up to their potential.
“At some point, we’re getting down the stretch,” he added. “I know the guys, we have some good leadership, I know they had a meeting about it themselves and they care. They want to do well. So, I think they’ll figure it out and be more consistent in winning those hockey games and try to limit those valleys.”
If this team can’t do that now, this win won’t mean as much down the line.