MONTREAL — They were chanting his name.
When Samuel Montembeault pushed across his crease and contorted himself in a way most humans can’t to get a pad on Nikolaj Ehlers’ one-timed shot, it was his second acrobatic save of this particular sequence. He had made an eye-popping stop on Adam Lowry in the first period, and this beauty on Ehlers — which came just a few ticks after Evgeny Svechnikov forced him to come up with something otherworldly — kept the Canadiens within a goal of the Winnipeg Jets and brought the fans out of their seats.
“MONTY! MONTY!” they yelled.
It evolved into “MON-TEM-BEAULT! MON-TEM-BEAULT!” perfectly pronounced in French and belted out in harmony among 20,728 fans in attendance at the Bell Centre on Monday.
We can’t say with any certainty how many of them purchased tickets thinking this would be the night they’d be serenading Carey Price, who would finally make his return to play 280 days after he last dressed for a game in this building.
But they got the other guy.
Not Jake Allen, who was hurt in Saturday’s game against Toronto, but Montembeault — the 25-year-old goaltender who came over through waivers at the beginning of the season and was considered to be nothing more than a seat filler until Price’s eventual return.
“It was really special to hear my name at the Bell Centre,” he said after making 31 saves in a 4-2 loss to the Jets.
What led to that is a prime example of what’s been gained over the back half of this losing season for the Canadiens. It was a prime example of what will continue to be gained over the final nine games to be played before the end of April.
Because Montembeault was celebrated for the last of several sprawling saves he made on this night, and those sprawling saves were all due to the development he’s undergone since landing with the Canadiens. Development isn’t only for the youngest and most popular players.
It's also for the other guys.
“Starting deeper in my net to have a shorter movement to go across and beat the passes compared to when I got here (and) I was going out of my crease a lot,” he said to explain what he’s been working on. “And when they were starting to do a lot of passes across, I would get late and start to run around. I think that’s something I improved and something they helped me get better at.”
They are the coaches of the Canadiens, and it’s critical that they have been working just as hard on developing Montembeault — as well as 25-year-old Jake Evans, 26-year-olds Corey Schueneman and Christian Dvorak, 27-year-old Josh Anderson, 28-year-old Joel Armia, and soon-to-be-30-year-old Brendan Gallagher — as they have been on developing Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield, Alex Romanov, Ryan Poehling, Jesse Ylonen, Justin Barron and Jordan Harris, who are all in their early 20s. These players are all likely to be here next season, and all of them, no matter their age, have bought into the idea that they can evolve.
This is how this team will progress, and how it will be competitive again sooner than later.
“I think with the guys, if I’m here next year I don’t feel I’m starting from scratch,” said interim head coach Martin St. Louis, who will absolutely be here next year if he wants to be. “I think this is a good opportunity to implement the concepts, the culture I’m trying to bring collectively and individually.”
What better time than now, with the results as inconsequential as they were when St. Louis took over from Dominique Ducharme 28 games ago?
He’s helped Suzuki and Caufield produce at least a point per game since joining the team, and he’s taken the long approach with Anderson and Gallagher — a pair of established goal scorers who have always played the game in straight lines, at full speed, and with reckless abandon.
“If you just go, go, go,” said St. Louis, “you’re going to miss opportunities.”
Now he wants Anderson and Gallagher to pick their spots and think the game through a bit more, to apply their strengths when the situations call for it but to also adjust to how the game has changed so they may benefit from space that’s less defended on the ice.
“It’s just more strategic,” said Gallagher when he was asked about the changes he’s witnessed since debuting with the Canadiens in 2013. “A lot of teams play in the neutral zone where they shift over and they try to clog and they try to get you on one side of the ice. Before it wasn’t so much like that. Before you really had to slash through the middle to create open ice.
“Now you see five guys on that side of the ice, you have to get the puck to the open ice, which is on the far side. It’s more of a strategic change… There’s little things in d-zone — a lot of teams swarm; five guys on the same side of the ice, where the open ice is out there behind. If you’re trying to create offence, you’re always just trying to find the open ice and trying to create pockets…”
Both Gallagher and Anderson are spending a lot of time in the video room analyzing that stuff and then trying to apply adjustments to in-game situations.
Neither of them are lighting up the score sheet — even if Anderson scored Montreal’s second goal against the Jets and Gallagher probably would’ve had their first had Armia’s stick not beat his to the rebound Dvorak created — but the coach is allowing them to take a small step back in the hopes they can take bigger ones forward.
It’s what St. Louis is doing with all his players.
“I think it’s important,” he said. “If you’re going to play in this league for a long time, you’ve got to keep evolving as a player. You still need to play to your strength, but there’s parts of your game that every player has holes in their games and you’ve gotta try as a coach, as an organization, to help those players work on the holes that they have. The more they do that, the more they’ll evolve, the more productive they’ll be, and they probably will have a better, longer career because of it.”
Players who submit to that process will have nights like Montembeault did on Monday, nights where they enjoy how the hard work turned into the fans chanting their names.
It took him time to get there, and it’ll take time for some other players on this team to reach their next level.
“Once it becomes clear through repetition, through video, through conversation, they’re in a better place,” said St. Louis.
That’s the process the Canadiens are invested in from here to the end of the season.