Even tank types should be able to cheer for Canadiens’ Montembeault

Samuel Montembeault made 36 saves, Jordan Harris scored a goal and added an assist and the Montreal Canadiens snapped a five-game losing streak with a 4-2 win over the Arizona Coyotes.

MONTREAL — A line from Samuel Montembeault after his first-star performance on Samuel Montembeault Bobblehead Night at the Bell Centre: “I wanted to have a good game, didn’t want people throwing them in the garbage on the way out.”

Mission accomplished.

Then again, there may have been more than a few Montreal Canadiens fans cursing those fancy little figurines after Montembeault made 36 saves and got in the way of his team extending its losing streak to six games. Especially against the downtrodden Arizona Coyotes, who rode into the building without a win in 12 games, barely clinging to better draft positioning than the Canadiens in the NHL standings.

Those people knew Montembeault getting the start meant that one-point lead for the Canadiens likely wasn’t going to turn into a one-point deficit. They blamed him for costing them their best chance at Connor Bedard a season ago, and they knew this would just be another night of him interfering with the team’s odds of eventually landing Macklin Celebrini getting any better.

Maybe they should just console themselves with the knowledge they won’t have to be begging the Canadiens to find a starting goaltender by the time they want the team to win again with regularity.

Montembeault at $3.15 million per season, over the next three after this one, is a nice bargain for them to be excited about as well. After all, there aren’t many teams in the NHL who can feel as confident in their goaltender as the Canadiens do on a nightly basis, and the ones who can are paying much bigger bucks for that luxury.

The Canadiens are paying just $1 million to Montembeault this season — a true pittance in the NHL. And they’re getting more than their money’s worth watching him further establish himself in his role.

On this night the Becancour, Que., native was sensational — rebounding from a couple of performances where he wasn’t at his best — and the Canadiens needed him to be exactly that.

“We didn’t play a good game,” said Martin St. Louis, and he was sugarcoating it.

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This one was far worse than the five that preceded it, with the Canadiens outshot by a near two-to-one margin and heavily out-chanced.

He, and they, weren’t enthralled with the process. But all of them would’ve taken a win in any form, so they were ebullient Montembeault delivered it.

He started off by stopping all 11 shots he faced in the first period. He shut down four odd-man rushes in the second and came up with 15 saves on 16 shots in the frame. And then he stopped another 10 in the third, making brilliant saves on Barrett Hayton and Nick Schmaltz before surrendering a fluke goal to Nick Bjugstad.

That one didn’t end up mattering, as Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki scored his 23rd goal of the season into an empty net to make it 4-2 with three seconds remaining.

They knew who to thank for the win, though.

As Jordan Harris said, after notching a goal and an assist in the game, “You easily could’ve flipped the score of this one, but Sam stole it.”

“I think Sam’s stolen a lot of games for us this year.”

Legitimate No. 1 goaltenders do that just the same for teams that are 27th or first in the NHL standings.

They also bounce back from games where their performance drops beneath the high bar they’ve set for themselves.

Not that Montembeault thought he was bad in a loss to the Buffalo Sabres last Wednesday. He said allowing three goals on 23 shots may not have looked great statistically, but he still felt his execution was there in that game.

But the 27-year-old didn’t think it was there at all when he gave up seven goals on 31 shots to the New York Rangers, on Feb. 15, and he was hoping to immediately follow that up against the Sabres with a performance like the one he put in on this night.

That’s what you want.

“He’s sneaky competitive,” said Harris. “You don’t really see it with him and his demeanour, but he’s a really competitive guy. You see that in practice, and he absolutely battled out there for us tonight, and honestly all season, so it’s good to see him rewarded. He goes into every game dialed in and focused and wanting to win, but I feel it’s one of his most underrated qualities — his compete level.”

Mixing that with the calm, cool collectedness that has defined him over the last two seasons with the Canadiens is what has enabled Montembeault to elevate his status from waiver-wire claim to third-stringer to backup and now starter.

He’s become a player people expect to succeed.

“For him playing like he did tonight, I’m really happy for him,” said St. Louis. “I’m not surprised, because you see everything that leads up to it. It’s a great quality for every athlete to keep trying to evolve and play for a long time and, with that work before the games that leads up to that, our group is not surprised.”

Neither were the fans, many of whom cheered Montembeault on this night both during and after the game and were probably headed home to put his bobblehead on their mantle, far away from Bell Centre garbage cans.

Even the ones who want the Canadiens to lose should probably hold on to it. It might be worth something to them when they start cheering for him to perform the way he did in this game.

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