Canadiens fighting through impossible circumstances, growing even through losses

Brady Tkachuk scored the game-winning goal and Tim Stutzle found the back of the net twice to help the Ottawa Senators defeat the Montreal Canadiens 5-4.

MONTREAL — Martin St. Louis laid out exactly what he wanted to see from his Montreal Canadiens in their last game before they were to all disperse to various locations to enjoy the nine days they’ll have off until their next practice.

“I want us to be engaged and committed and not really be on break,” he said as the Ottawa Senators were hitting the ice for their morning skate at the Bell Centre on Tuesday. “I want us to respect today and to go about our business the way we have. We haven’t gotten all the results, but we’ve been consistent into the process that we’re doing. And I’m pretty happy in the way we behave as a team on the ice and also the way we’ve looked, and I’m looking for that tonight.”

The Canadiens had lost their last three games prior to Tuesday’s contest, including Saturday’s 5-0 loss to the Senators, and if you hadn’t watched them closely or considered the context of their plight, you’d have wondered how St. Louis could be happy at all.

But a move the coach made in Montreal’s fourth consecutive loss outlined why he was able to be content and provided more context as to why he stepped to the podium after yet another loss and once again expressed his satisfaction.

It was in the second period of Tuesday’s game, after the Canadiens had stumbled through the opening frame and given up goals on two of Ottawa’s first three shots, that St. Louis turned to Rafael Harvey-Pinard for a spark. And the reason he gave for doing it said everything about where this team is at in its process at the moment.

“One of the (pieces of) advice I got taking this job is listen to your gut,” St. Louis said. “That’s what I did.”

That his gut told him to put the 24-year-old, who was playing in his 11th NHL game and his seventh this season, on the top line with Nick Suzuki and Josh Anderson was certainly a nod to Harvey-Pinard’s determination, to his consistent effort, and to the way he’s been finishing his chances of late.

The kid who was drafted 201st overall in 2019 after being passed over in each of his first two years of eligibility had three goals in his six games since being called up from the AHL’s Laval Rocket, and he was fully deserving of the assignment based on that alone.

But who else was St. Louis going to choose? The Canadiens are missing eight regular forwards, they have at least three more (we know of) outside of Suzuki’s line who are banged up, and winning — even against a Senators team that has been wholly disappointing since the beginning of the season — has proven nearly impossible under the circumstances.

But winning isn’t the be-all, end-all for the Canadiens this season. Having a healthy process and trying as hard as possible to win is. Development is. And both those ends were served in this game — a 5-4 loss.

“I didn’t like our first period, but we battled hard in the second and third,” said St. Louis. “We played hockey. We didn’t win the game, but, as for the hockey game we played, I was happy with the group.”

And he was happy for Harvey-Pinard on the development front.

The Saguenay, Que., native rewarded his coach and the Canadiens immediately after he was placed with Suzuki and Anderson.

He said afterwards he didn’t like his game through the first period and didn’t really start feeling good about it until the two shifts he played before being bumped to the top line, but he had every reason to be happy about the rest of it.

Harvey-Pinard quickly produced a scoring chance and drew a power play on his first two shifts from with Suzuki and Anderson. Then he  scored two goals to help the Canadiens battle back from 3-2 and 4-3 deficits

They lost on a goal from Brady Tkachuk with 1:18 remaining. It was a shot David Savard partially blocked, an unlucky bounce that put them behind once again — a tough break after they had responded to going down 2-1 in the first with 26 shots to Ottawa’s 18 and four goals to Ottawa’s two from the beginning of the second to that point of the third, and they still kept coming after it went in.

It wasn’t easy to swallow for the Canadiens, and that’s a good thing as well.

They’re aware of their circumstances, but they aren’t using them as an excuse.

“You just gotta come to work every day,” Suzuki said.

And, as he pointed out, there’s upside to the situation the Canadiens have been dealing with.

“I think it just gives a lot of new guys opportunities,” he said after recording two assists and registering his first multi-point game since Jan. 7. “HP is playing really well, and he might not have been able to establish himself in the NHL without those injuries.”

Harvey-Pinard isn’t the only one doing that.

“We’ve got a ton of young players,” Suzuki said. “They’re just learning their way through the NHL, and the best experience is to be out there and playing meaningful minutes.”

No forward in the NHL has played more of them per game than the 23-year-old has over the last 10 days, and he’ll bookend All-Star weekend in Florida with a few days of much-earned rest.

Suzuki has grown through that process. His young teammates have done the same. And that’s reason enough for St. Louis to be content.

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