Canadiens’ performance against Bruins a sign they’re building team chemistry

Montreal Canadiens' Kirby Dach scores against Boston Bruins goaltender Jeremy Swayman during third period NHL hockey action in Montreal, Tuesday, January 24, 2023. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Graham Hughes

MONTREAL— The Boston Bruins are the NHL’s model franchise, so it’s easy to say the Montreal Canadiens want to be just like them.

There are 30 other teams that want to be just like them—a deep, offensively balanced, defensively stalwart team that’s backed by arguably the best goaltending duo in the NHL and coached by a masterful tactician who also knows how to get out of the way and let his team do what it does.

And when you see what it does, you understand exactly why it’s in the midst of putting up one of the best regular seasons in NHL history, why it has just five regulation losses through 47 games, and why it’s going to be the most feared team in the upcoming Stanley Cup Playoffs.

Martin St. Louis knew what his Montreal Canadiens, in their infancy stage of a rebuild, were going up against at the Bell Centre on Tuesday. He made it clear on Monday he views the Bruins as the most well-oiled machine in hockey.

“There’s a lot of predictability between them, but they’re unpredictable to the other team,” he said. “They’re able to hide stuff. And it’s often that you watch them and remark they’re five (individual) brains (on the ice at a time), but they’re all connected to the same motherboard.

“It takes time to build that.”

The Canadiens are only taking their first real steps in their process to build that, and the Bruins showed in their 4-2 win over them that they’re well past building and walking in rarified air.

Their chemistry, built over championship runs and maintained due to the core remaining intact, is the most enviable quality of their team. Sure, every other one in the NHL would love to be able to spread their best talent to three different lines to make matching up against them impossible, but that chemistry—more than any other factor—puts the dagger in the Bruins’ hands on most nights.

It’s what put it in their hands on Tuesday, against a Canadiens team that stood up as well as any opponent has to them this season.

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With a little less than three minutes to go, Brad Marchand and Patrice Bergeron were reunited for just their third shift of the game. The Perfection Line, as they were dubbed long ago, lined up for a faceoff and proceeded to suck the life out of the Bell Centre with a play only three players who’ve played together for years could’ve executed with such surgical precision.

Even on Boston’s second goal, scored 11 minutes before, David Pastrnak and David Krejci, who’ve played together all season and have suited up together in international competition in years past, linked up on a perfect play. The instant Krejci broke from Justin Barron’s coverage, the puck arrived right on the blade of his elevated stick on a perfectly timed shot from Pastrnak.

Those goals were decisive plays in the game, but just samples of the type of plays the Bruins strung together all night. The type they’ve made all season.

“They’re very structured, and they execute that structure very well, so it seems that there’s a flow to their game that whenever somebody has the puck, everybody seems to know where it’s going and that makes it difficult to play against,” said Canadiens defenceman Mike Matheson.

“That’s the biggest part of becoming a great team is playing together for a long time and building that chemistry so that you know where the puck’s going before you get there and you understand your structure and your system so well that you’re on the same page and execute that plan really well.”

He and his teammates should be extremely encouraged—not only about standing up to a team like that, but also about how they did it.

The Canadiens played for each other, played together, played within their structure and true to the brand they’re working to establish. They got tremendous saves from Samuel Montembeault, no question, but they were in the Bruins’ faces and relentless from start to finish.

Just like they had been in back-to-back games two weekends ago in New York, like they had been in a 4-1 win over the Winnipeg Jets early last week, and like they had in a 3-2 win over the Toronto Maple Leafs last Saturday after a tough loss to the Florida Panthers last Thursday.

The Canadiens went toe to toe with the Bruins. They got on the board first with Kirby Dach’s power-play goal 9:11 into the second period. They answered two goals with another from Dach. And if not for a missed offside call, that offensive zone faceoff Bergeron, Marchand and Pastrnak took advantage of to score the winner wouldn’t have happened.

But that, and Pastrnak’s empty netter with 49 seconds to go, didn’t detract from this performance showing the Canadiens have taken another step towards building the chemistry that will inevitably lead to their success down the road.

It’s a pretty big one after a massive step in the wrong direction put them in a deep funk from mid-December through early January.

“Three weeks ago, we were probably at rock bottom of our season,” said St. Louis. “We’ve found a way to repair ourselves and actually even be a better version than before the dip. So I think the group is able to grow, and to do that we need everybody involved and engaged to grow. The guys are playing for the logo, and it shows.”

A base has been established through that process, enabling the Canadiens to execute despite so many of their regulars currently missing games due to injury.

They’re a long way off from where the Bruins currently are, and it’ll take years for them to find the same cohesion.

But Tuesday’s performance offered evidence the Canadiens are further along than most would’ve imagined they’d get this season.

“I feel the engagement, the taking-care-of-the-team mentality is big. And our work ethic,” said St. Louis. “It’s a foundation. There’s plenty of ways that you can play in your D-zone, Xs and Os, and I feel like we’re really on the same page, we’re getting closer to what we want to look like. We’re not perfect—I don’t think any team is—but we’re finding ways to do it together. We’re very together, and it shows in the games that we’ve played the last five, six games. We’ve played some excellent teams, and we’re in it, we give ourselves a chance…

“I think we’re checking the boxes in what we want to look like as a team, and be like, and I’m proud of the guys.”

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