MONTREAL — March 6, 2021, at 8:28 p.m. ET: Mark this down as the precise moment the weight of the world fell off the broad shoulders of the Montreal Canadiens, with Brendan Gallagher’s ninth goal of the season giving them a 3-0 lead and full control of a game they desperately needed to win over the Winnipeg Jets at the Bell Centre.
Not that it cured all that’s been ailing them. That will take time and the continuance of good habits leading to some kind of winning streak.
But with Gallagher’s arms in the air in the 12th minute of the second period and a win en route, you could feel the heaviness the Canadiens had been carrying throughout February and the first five days of March dissipate into the ether. The heaviness Shea Weber referenced just 24 hours before the Canadiens had a win stolen away by the Ottawa Senators on Feb. 23, and 48 hours before coach Claude Julien and associate coach Kirk Muller were relieved of their duties.
On Saturday night, the good vibes returned after so many bad ones prevailed through the five-game losing streak that ended Julien’s tenure and through three losses in four games under new coach Dominique Ducharme. Even if the tide was turning in the way the Canadiens were playing, the results weren’t.
The Canadiens coming out 7-1 winners on Saturday, with so many positives to take from their performance, is a pivotal moment in their season.
It didn’t look like it was going that way through the first 10 minutes of the game, though. It looked like it was going to be stressful all the way through when the Canadiens started off nervously against the Jets, who had beaten them in four prior meetings.
“I thought in the first we were just not comfortable enough to execute the way we want to execute,” Ducharme said.
But the Canadiens got a power play in the 11th minute of the first that Jesperi Kotkaniemi said turned momentum their way. And Josh Anderson, in his first game back after missing three with a lower-body injury, scored his 10th goal of the season less than five minutes later, precipitated by a lucky bounce off the glass.
Everything else started unblocking from there.
“We talked about it after the first, and I thought we started the second better with making those little plays,” Ducharme said. “And then the confidence grew. Just getting a couple of goals just helped.”
Tyler Toffoli’s goal—his 15th of the season—made it 2-0 in the eighth minute of the second. That was big. But the one that came for Gallagher right after, with Phillip Danault throwing a perfect pass across the slot, was the stress reliever.
Not just for the team, but also for Danault, who may still have zero goals through 23 games but likely gained confidence seeing a play he set end with one for Gallagher.
Forget likely. It was confirmed when Danault sent a spinning backhand pass to give Gallagher his 10th goal just three minutes and 24 seconds later.
Danault, Gallagher and Tomas Tatar combined for six points. Ducharme could’ve pulled them apart in making several other line tweaks prior to the game, but he kept them together and then reveled in the good feeling they gave him, the team and themselves.
“They like playing with each other,” Ducharme said. “They’re talking and trying to find solutions. We’re helping them on our side to be more specific with their line. There are qualities within what we ask—I think it fits their game, too. That’s why I was confident (I was going) to see them getting some offence…
“It’s nice to see them getting rewarded tonight.”
It had to have felt good for Ducharme to see Kotkaniemi, who came into the game having won 45.5 per cent of his faceoffs, pull back 13 of 15 draws and set up the opening goal for Anderson; to see him play so confidently in his first game between the team’s top two scorers.
The 20-year-old Finn wasn’t credited with an assist on Toffoli’s goal, but he cleanly won the faceoff that led to the setup by Weber.
Toffoli did the rest with a bullet over Connor Hellebuyck’s blocker.
After Gallagher’s second goal gave Montreal a 4-0 lead and chased Hellebuyck from his net, Joel Armia scored on the first shot Jets goaltender Laurent Brossoit faced. It was a play that started with Joel Edmundson and ended with Armia—with Jeff Petry, Nick Suzuki and Jonathan Drouin all getting a touch on the puck in between.
Talk about a loose and free play emanating from a suddenly unburdened Canadiens team.
If they had taken a 5-0 lead to the third before Paul Byron and Petry made it 7-0, it was in part thanks to Carey Price—the Canadiens goaltender who had to follow up a good outing against Ottawa on Tuesday with an even better one Saturday, just three days after the firing of goaltending coach Stephane Waite brought so much negativity to his bubble.
It was while the Canadiens were scrambling in the opening minutes that Price made settling saves on Paul Stastny and Pierre-Luc Dubois. He finished the night with confidence-inspiring saves on Neal Pionk and Mathieu Perreault, Winnipeg’s lone scorer, and came off the ice with a big smile on his face.
“I thought (Price) was really patient,” Ducharme said. “I thought he was really strong on the puck, square to the puck, facing the puck. He was moving well, so on every shot he looked really set and ready to receive everything coming at him.
“He’s working on his game, and he’s been for a while now. When you have a goalie that talented that is willing to work on his game like he does, you obviously, at one point, you know it’s going to turn around.”
You could say the same of this Canadiens team, which has been working so hard to implement the many changes Ducharme has made since taking over.
The players, who Danault said are completely bought in, were so in need of this kind of night.
“I was really happy for them,” Ducharme said. “To see them getting rewarded with a lot of success tonight. It won’t be like that every night. But to be rewarded—our players got rewarded tonight. It’s good for them, because they put in the work.”
There’s much more to do, with a six-game road trip beginning in Vancouver on Tuesday and ending in Winnipeg on Mar. 17, with a stop in Calgary in between for games against an underachieving Flames team chasing them in the standings and trying to build themselves up to where they should be under freshly-appointed coach Darryl Sutter.
Still, the Canadiens are continuing the process, feeling better about themselves than they did 24 hours prior.
“Tonight’s a good start in the right direction,” Anderson said. “I know there’s still little things in our game we have to clean up a bit, but we’re playing the right way, for sure.”