MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens finished off their 2022 home schedule at the Bell Centre the same way they started it, by losing, and losing royally.
This time to the Tampa Bay Lightning by a score of 5-1 — the 28th loss in 41 home games since Jan. 1; a second consecutive loss and a fifth in their last six games in front of their fans to end the year after starting it in front of them with seven consecutive losses.
Without nuance, you’d think nothing had changed in between.
But if you listened to those fans belting out “Go Habs Go!” with the Canadiens down 4-1 late in the third period, if you saw them rise to their feet and perform the wave with less than seven minutes remaining, and then witnessed the still half-full building clap as their team wallowed in defeat, you’d know how much it has.
There is a recognition there that is vital as this campaign moves forward, as the Canadiens play out what is considered to be the NHL’s most difficult schedule from here to the end of the season — starting with eight consecutive road games sandwiching the Christmas Holidays—and it could do much to nurture the growth of this young team.
It matters to these players that the fans see that they’ve improved in several areas. That they’re building towards becoming the type of team the Lightning have been for the last five years, that the effort they’re putting in (even towards the end of games with no hope of winning) is fundamental to establishing a winning culture.
But their patience will be required. It’ll be a long time before the Canadiens can consistently play the type of game the Lightning brought to the Bell Centre on Saturday.
The boys from Tampa may have come out sleepy to start, but they struck with two bolts as soon as they had chances in the first period to establish a 2-0 lead.
Then the Lightning suffocated the Canadiens, stifling pucks with active sticks and baiting them into taking penalties and forcing plays. That’s not something they learned to do on a consistent basis over just one season.
“It takes years. It takes years. It takes years,” repeated former Lightning forward Jonathan Drouin, who was one of Montreal’s best players in this loss. “We played better in the first, but they know they’re going to get their chances. They find ways. Good teams find ways.”
The Lightning were once a budding team filled with young stars, sitting in a similar place to where the Canadiens find themselves right now, thriving on an offensive style of play to keep their fans engaged as they navigated growing pains.
Figuring out the value in defending was a process.
“It’s something that you have to grow into,” said longtime coach Jon Cooper to reporters after Saturday’s morning skate. “When a player comes into the league, and he’s got that offensive talent and risk and reward, there’s risk and there’s less reward because they think the reward is scoring.
“And if you want to relate it to winning: When winning becomes important to players, that’s when the risk goes away and they understand the difference. I think you do grow into that. For instance, Stamkos coming into the league at 18 is a different player than he is now…”
Stamkos’ 498th goal in the NHL on Saturday was scored using the same instincts he displayed as a rookie who scored 23 in 2008-09. But the rest of his game has evolved to the point that you rarely see him make the kind of mistakes young Canadiens star Cole Caufield has made over his last two games.
On Thursday, in a loss to the Anaheim Ducks, Caufield dropped coverage on Jonathan Klingberg for a goal that put the Canadiens down 2-0. And on Saturday, the 21-year-old failed to pick up Brandon Hagel after Canadiens defenceman Kaiden Guhle pressured his man up ice because Caufield was in position to have him covered.
None of that detracts from how Caufield has evolved in his game to score his 18 goals on the season. It just illustrates how far he and his teammates need to come to get to where the Lightning has gone.
“A lot of continuity in their core guys, the style of play,” said Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis earlier in the day. “They possess, and I think what they went through over the hump was the way they managed their risk and reward. They learned to play tight games and shut teams down.
“We’re all scared of the offensive side of the thing, but they really committed to the other side of the puck, and it allowed them to win two Cups in a row and almost three. There’s a lot to like about the way they play. Obviously, it starts with their top guys, and that’s what we’re after.”
He talked after the game about what will enable the Canadiens to get there.
“I think staying patient is important, but I think the truth through that process is probably more important,” St. Louis said. “We have to look at where we can be better and keep building, but the truth is everything.”
It can’t be lost while the fans focus on a valiant effort and applaud a young team in transition.
As St. Louis said, holding players accountable, as games and negative trends get reviewed in video sessions, is essential.
Caufield won’t be the only one featured. Young defenceman Jordan Harris will be in there after losing Nick Paul on Tampa’s second goal, and others will see themselves giving up chances the team can’t afford to surrender if it wants to win more games in front of its fans.
“I think sometimes we get loose defensively,” St. Louis said. “I think we have missed assignments defensively. And it’s part of the growing process, part of the pain. And sometimes you get in those video sessions and you’re the guy in the video, and it’s part of it. This is the truth, and it’s how we’re going to grow.”
He’s been Mr. Positive since taking over in February of last season, but he’ll have to show his players another side of himself to help them eliminate the terrible penalties and help them fix a power play Nick Suzuki referred to after Saturday’s game as “just really bad.”
At least the Canadiens have addressed several other things that have changed the way they’re being received by their fans.
“Last (season), we were out of the games. Halfway through the games, we knew it was over and there was no jump,” said Drouin. “(But this season), I think the fans know we don’t give up and every time we’re down one, two, three, we have a chance to come back.”
St. Louis said earlier in the day he loves the way his players have learned to position themselves without the puck on offence and the way they’ve learned to possess it, and he said he feels they’re improving without it defensively.
The challenge now is to learn how to put those elements together on a consistent basis.
Once the Canadiens do, they’ll give fans at the Bell Centre wins to celebrate.