MONTREAL— It may take some time for the Montreal Canadiens’ brand of hockey to prevail on a nightly basis, but what’s clear is that brand has been established and is now recognizable.
That’s the biggest victory of this team’s season.
It’s certainly not the 8-2 shellacking of the bottom-of-the-barrel Columbus Blue Jackets, who arrived in Montreal hours after beating the New York Islanders on Friday night and appeared even more tired than they probably were on Saturday.
Not to take anything away from the Canadiens, because they showed up and put on a show and, if anything, provided a perfect sample of how far their brand has come and what it’s all about. But their season isn’t about a single result, no matter how lopsided the outcome in either direction.
It’s been about individual development, and we’ve seen that transpiring all over their lineup — and not just with rookies like Rafael Harvey-Pinard, who came up from Laval and became a permanent fixture on the Canadiens’ top line over the past number of weeks, due to the team’s absurd injury situation.
The thing is, the progression of 29-year-old Mike Matheson from reliable NHL defenceman to no. 1 defenceman is just as noteworthy as Harvey-Pinard’s jump from AHL grinder to NHL scorer because of the thread that weaves them together.
Both were in the spotlight in this game — Matheson for dominating from start to finish and putting up three points to make it nine in his last seven games and Harvey-Pinard for scoring his first hat trick at the pro level — just as 23-year-old captain Nick Suzuki was for recording his first four-point game to match his career-high of 61 in a season. And all of them were shining bright because the team tapped into the brand they’ve consistently displayed all week (in a 3-2 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning Tuesday, in a game they lost but easily could’ve won against the NHL’s most dominant team in Boston and in Saturday’s beatdown of the woeful Blue Jackets).
“We do have a brand,” said Matheson.
Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis was asked about it on Saturday morning and, without wanting to get into great detail, said this:
“I think the most important thing about our brand is just the balance and the connection on both sides of the puck,” he started. “To me, it’s being connected, because you’re not playing tennis, you’re not playing golf (individual sports)… You have five brains out there, but somehow they’ve gotta be somewhat on the same software… And I know that’s hard, but the more you talk about it, the more you work at it, the more you show examples, it’s impossible to think that every time and every rep you’re going to take, it’s going to be connected, but the more you stay at it, the closer you get to it…I feel like we’ve grown tremendously on both sides of the puck that way, and all that happens through balance on the ice.”
It happens over a season, with five rookies finding their places and eventually feeling at home in them on the Canadiens’ blue line, with kids like Harvey-Pinard and Kirby Dach showing they have more in them than even their coach might have thought before training camp, and with the whole group buying into the concepts being dictated in every practice.
We took a glimpse inside that process on Monday when the Canadiens worked on some things that so clearly filtered into the way they played throughout the week.
“When you’re asking your players to play a certain way on the ice and you can’t put them in those situations in practice, whose fault is that if they can’t do it in games after? It’s the coach’s responsibility…” said St. Louis. “We see the benefit of that and I feel, as coaches, it’s very rewarding to see that some of the stuff you work on, they can go out there and almost…nothing’s easy, but it’s easier when you get some of these reps in practice.”
When you reinforce it with some visual learning, things really start to sink in.
Before playing Tampa and Boston, St. Louis talked about how organized both teams are, and about how that organization is a function of having a recognizable brand and a connectivity borne of familiarity that’s been in place between their players for years. He said that’s what he’s trying to build with the Canadiens, so it should come as no surprise he picked out examples from those teams to reinforce how he wants to create connection and balance.
“One of the things we’ve done is we’ve watched what some of the best teams in the league are doing, and it’s a copycat league,” said Brendan Gallagher.
Watching the way his goal and assist were produced in this game — and how the other six scoring plays came together — were just some of the examples of the Canadiens successfully copying.
There were many others when they looked like the Lightning or Bruins — against those teams on Tuesday and Thursday, respectively, and against Columbus on Saturday.
“We talk a lot about being on top of the other team instead of being above them,” said Matheson. “You can be above your check, but that allows space between you. If you’re on top of them, there’s no space. And I think that’s the driving force of everything in all three zones is how good we are at being on top of them. That smothering causes turnovers, it allows us to spend more time in the o-zone and less time in our d-zone, and that’s the biggest thing you look for in our A-game.”
You also look for the Canadiens to properly support the puck, to spread themselves out properly and constantly appear as Johnathan Kovacevic described them Monday, like the five-side of a die but with dots in perpetual motion to replace each other and keep that five intact.
This is the balance that St. Louis is constantly referring to, and it allows a player like Matheson to take advantage of his incredible skating stride to rove all over the ice in all three zones, just as it allowed Harvey-Pinard to be in the best position to take advantage of three scoring plays on Saturday.
“It’s huge, and it’s what we’re working on all the time,” the 24-year-old said.
This game, the ones played earlier this week and really most of the ones (with the exception of a bad loss to the Colorado Avalanche and a terrible one against the Florida Panthers) over the last month have shown to what degree the Canadiens are growing in that process.
And Harvey-Pinard is right. It is huge. It’s the most important thing that’s happened this season, and it should be the greatest source of hope for the ones to come.