Canadiens challenged to find level of consistency in tough middle portion of season

John Klingberg scored twice and Adam Henrique tallied a goal and an assist as the Anaheim Ducks defeated the Montreal Canadiens 5-2 for just their second regulation win of the season.

MONTREAL — A Thursday night in Montreal, in the middle of December, with a porous Anaheim Ducks team in town and the Canadiens lumbering after losing a night prior in Ottawa to the Senators. 

This is Game 30 of the 2022-23 season — a 5-2 loss, suffered smack in the middle of the month that’s already seen the Canadiens travel through five different cities and will end with them visiting six more — and this is what normalcy feels like.

It’s the mundane, adrenaline-free portion of the schedule Martin St. Louis said would reveal much more about his young team than a hot or cold start could. The Canadiens have officially entered it and, regardless of whether or not Thursday’s loss is a harbinger of things to come, it will challenge this inexperienced group, which left its coach saying on this night that “a major lack of execution” and having “way too many passengers” proved costly.

“We deserved what we got tonight,” St. Louis added. “We didn’t deserve to win this game. Even if we had won it, we wouldn’t have deserved it.”

That he could count on an emu’s foot the number of times he’s felt that way through Montreal’s 14-14-2 start speaks to how much further along his team is in its growth than he expected it would be.

But nights like this one, and the 20 or so to follow, will provide a lot more seasoning, and the Canadiens just need to go through them to understand what it takes to find the level of consistency every team desires. They need to experience the ebbs and flows and learn how to manage the emotional highs and lows to find level ground.

“It’s such a hard league,” said St. Louis, who went through all of that before developing into a Hall-of-Fame player over his 1134 games. 

“Just rewind 24 hours, minus two periods, feeling really good about where we are for the first period in Ottawa,” he added. “And now it’s back-to-back losses and a poor performance tonight.”

The Canadiens knew what they’d have to do to avoid surrendering an early lead to the Ducks, who came into the game with just one regulation-time win on the season. 

But they lacked the focus to do it, allowing the Ducks an easy power-play goal on one shift before completely blowing coverage seconds later on John Klingberg’s goal to make it 2-0.

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“I think we just gave it to them in the first where we’re turning the puck over, we’re not getting the puck in deep,” said Jonathan Drouin. “Especially on a back-to-back, you want to get pucks in deep, you want to get forecheck, you want to keep it simple for the first period, find your legs a little bit. I think we complicated ourselves a little bit, and we shot ourselves in the foot.”

The Canadiens did that on Wednesday night in Ottawa — taking a rash of penalties to spoil a great 5-on-5 effort — and they did it again a night later by failing on three consecutive power plays before finally capitalizing on one in the third period and then falling over each other as Klingberg scored again after they tied the game 2-2 in the third.

Cole Caufield, who scored both of Montreal’s goals to get to 18 on the season, was frustrated.

“I loved how we came back and competed,” he said, “but at the end of the day, it just wasn’t enough.”

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It’s going to get harder, with the Canadiens playing their last home game of 2022 on Saturday against the Tampa Bay Lightning before embarking on an eight-game road trip that’ll be split in two by the Christmas Break.

And then there will still be more than half a season to play.

Jake Allen, who made 27 saves on Thursday, is in his 10th season and knows well what it requires to settle into the pocket of a season and still play fresh and free.

“It is tough,” he said. “You get all hot and horny at the start of the year. Every team does. You get piss and vinegar in your pants, you’re ready to rock, and then sometimes it does get a little bit stale.”

Injuries hit — the Canadiens are currently without Brendan Gallagher, Sean Monahan, David Savard and Mike Matheson, and both their penalty kill and power play are suffering because of it — and energy can prove elusive. 

That the Canadiens’ passion hasn’t slipped at all to this point is a positive.

“We’ve got a lot of youth here and a lot of enthusiasm,” he said. “That is something that Marty does try to preach every day — bringing enthusiasm to the rink. Whether we come off a couple of losses in a row, a couple wins in a row, we try to have that same mindset. I felt that’s been pretty consistent this year.”

But that’s going to be tested a lot more over the coming weeks. 

St. Louis knew that would be the case early on, when his team shot out to an unexpectedly solid start and he said he wanted to see how it would respond to more normal NHL life as it came about. 

It’s here now, on Dec. 15, following a disappointing loss and ahead of mid-season.

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