Despite losses, Canadiens continue making gains under St. Louis

Jeff Skinner had himself a day, completely dominating with a four-goal effort, and the Buffalo Sabres defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-3.

MONTREAL — We promise this won’t be a rant about moral victories, especially with the Montreal Canadiens having dropped their 10th consecutive game.

Even if they showed their best of this week in what turned out to be a 5-3 loss Sunday to a Buffalo Sabres team no one would label a world-beater, it wasn’t good enough and the result reflected it. Too many costly errors, not enough chances capitalized on, yet another loss.

So no, this isn’t about wins of any kind.

But it doesn’t have to be, because the rest of this infernal Canadiens season isn’t about wins either.

It’s about gains. And this team, under new coach Martin St. Louis, is making them.

It will take time before those gains offset the deficits, but there’s been linear progress since St. Louis stepped behind the bench on Thursday, even in spite of a 5-2 loss that night, a 2-1 loss to the Columbus Blue Jackets and this 5-3 loss to the Sabres on Sunday.

We can see it, and the players can feel it.

“I know it’s not fun losing,” said Ryan Poehling, “but it’s been a lot more fun.”

That’s probably the biggest gain—borne of a bunch of smaller ones.

Yes, losing with dignity is a gain. It’s something the Canadiens weren’t able to do over the last games Dominique Ducharme coached and something they frankly hadn’t done much of since Jeff Gorton arrived as executive vice president of hockey operations on Nov. 28.

They had losing well-covered. Doing so with dignity? Not so much.

But what’s made this change possible is a shift in the atmosphere. St. Louis pushed it in that direction when he addressed his team before his introductory press conference and had them eating out of the palm of his hand with his message.

It wasn’t just what he said, which we’ve only ascertained a vague idea of—he told them what he told us later that morning; that he had been through everything there was to go through as a pro hockey player and could relate to every single person in the locker room—but it was also about how he said it.

There was passion there. There was fire. There was positivity, which had been impossible for the Canadiens to come by for too long.

When St. Louis was asked how to maintain that with the results not falling in Montreal’s favour, he explained that the circumstances demand it.

“I’m not here, at this point of the year, to become a negative guy,” the 46-year-old said. “I’ll stay positive with the guys. I want to see them progress.”

That’s an approach that’s been responded to by the players with complete engagement.

You couldn’t point to one who was detached on Sunday, and that too was a gain.

The effort was cohesive, from top to bottom—from Corey Schueneman coming into the lineup for injured defenceman Ben Chiarot to Nick Suzuki, who centred the top line with Tyler Toffoli and Cole Caufield.

That cohesive effort was there for most of the game. The Canadiens gave up the first goal, they bounced back with the next one. They allowed the Sabres to take a 2-1 lead, and they responded 57 seconds later. They took a 3-2 lead on a great passing play, and then they committed some mistakes to give it back.

They didn’t wilt—Suzuki said they had been doing too much wilting previously. Instead, they pressed the whole way, including in the third period, in which they were outscored 2-0 but outshot the Sabres 13-8.

“We were playing on top of them,” said St. Louis. “In the third period, I felt like we had the puck for the majority of the period.”

Before the Canadiens got there, Jeff Petry scored just his second goal of the season—his first in 11 games. Poehling made a brilliant play from behind the net to give Joel Armia just his second goal of the season—his first in 18.

Schueneman made his mark, too.

He played for the Laval Rocket on Friday and Saturday, found out he was playing for the Canadiens roughly three hours before Sunday’s game. He made a heady play on Mike Hoffman’s goal to tie things up 1-1 early in the second period, and it was one of many he made in a game made easier for him because of a healthier atmosphere and an engaged, cohesive effort.

“I really liked his pace and his decision-making,” said St. Louis. “I told (Canadiens defence coach Luke Richardson) to trust him because he was impressing me.”

The coach said he’s liked Poehling’s last three games and pointed to some other things he’s liked.

“The result hasn’t been there and I have to be honest with our players,” said St. Louis. “But it’s been four very intense days with a coaching change and a new philosophy. I know we haven’t won in the last three games, but when I watch the games—not only live from the bench, but when I go back and watch—I feel we’ve done so many good things from what I’ve brought them. They’ve been able to execute these things rather quickly.

“I’m proud of the work and the way they’ve bought into the plan and what I’m asking of them, and we’ll continue to progress. There was a lot of progress over the last three games, it’s just we haven’t yet won. But we’re not far from turning this into wins and feeling better.”

Again, no moral victory there. But certainly a gain.

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