Canadiens served wake-up call as identity goes missing in loss to Flyers

Sean Couturier had an assist and the shootout winner and Jamie Drysdale picked up a point in his Philadelphia Flyers debut as Philly picked up the 3-2 victory over the Montreal Canadiens.

Credit the Philadelphia Flyers, who deserved to beat the Montreal Canadiens after dominating them in each of the four periods played, and in the shootout on Wednesday.

They brought relentless pressure, capitalized on more chances in the end to win 3-2, closed out a four-game homestand with five points banked and, in the process, vaulted back into third place in the Metropolitan Division with 41 games to go in their season.

This was game 40 for the Canadiens, and it served notice that the ones played at this time of year are harder. 

They’ll only get more challenging moving forward, as the race to the playoffs moves at a higher velocity.

Keeping any type of footing will be impossible for the Canadiens if they ease off the gas the way they did against the Flyers.

“Tonight, we didn’t have our fastball,” said Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis to reporters in Philadelphia. 

He’d have conceded his team didn’t have its curveball, change-up or slider, either, had he been asked. 

That the Canadiens couldn’t adjust in any tangible way is the concern that needs to be immediately addressed by St. Louis, and by them.

Their pushback was limited to the first five minutes of the third period. St. Louis called it their best frame, which said a lot considering they were outshot 15-10 by the end of it, and he was left as perplexed as anyone as to why they couldn’t do more at any other point. The Canadiens were idle since Saturday, had a day off Sunday and two good practices Monday and Tuesday before this game, and there was no excuse for them to come out as wobbly and finish as off balance as they did — fumbling the puck in overtime on the few occasions they touched it and losing it completely on two of three shootout attempts. 

They were lucky to score two goals on their first two shots of the game, and they were even luckier to have a lead after giving up 10 shots and multiple Grade-A scoring chances in the first period. 

That lead evaporated 8:30 into the second — with Jamie Drysdale earning his first point as a Flyer on Morgan Frost’s power play goal — and the only reason the Canadiens weren’t down by the end of that period (or the next one, or overtime) was Cayden Primeau, who also said his feet were dragging to start the game.

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He was behind the play through the first but sensational the rest of the way, especially in turning aside seven shots in overtime. And the Canadiens forced him to be exactly that by not finding any type of resolve to correct themselves.

A few of them were there from start to finish. Josh Anderson had excellent scoring chances thwarted by Flyers goaltender Samuel Ersson. David Savard scored a goal and played as desperately as Mike Matheson did to keep Montreal in the game, with both blocking five shots apiece. And Kaiden Guhle put in a herculean effort blocking 10 shots — or just four more than the bars behind Primeau.

But where was everyone else in bleu-blanc-rouge on this first half of this back-to-back?

The second half is going to be miserable for the Canadiens if they appear anything like they did on this night. Even against a hapless San Jose Sharks team that’s lost 12 straight games.

The Canadiens shouldn’t underestimate them. And they had no reason to underestimate the Flyers, who always give their opponents the hard game coach John Tortorella demands.

It’s why they’re eight points up on Montreal in the standings despite coming into the season with even lower expectations than the Canadiens.

They’re technically a year behind in the rebuilding process and angling to emulate the cultural shift the Canadiens have been experiencing under general manager Kent Hughes and St. Louis. When I spoke with general manager Daniel Briere and Tortorella at the September GM/coaches meeting in Chicago, both of them talked with admiration about the example set by Hughes and St. Louis to keep the Canadiens pushing for a healthy, competitive atmosphere and mentioned the hills the Flyers needed to climb to replicate things on this front. 

“We have a lot of work to do,” Tortorella said.

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The Canadiens still have theirs cut out for them, and nights like this one only make that clearer.

They established themselves as a hardworking team through nearly impossible circumstances last season, even with injuries severely limiting their ability to convert good efforts into good results. And they have found a way to only lean further into that identity this season, despite once again losing pivotal players to long-term injury.

But this game against the Flyers should serve as a caution to the Canadiens that they can’t afford to deviate from that process and identity and come close to winning. 

At least they know the final score against the Flyers wasn’t at all indicative of their performance.

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Savard said he didn’t even expect them to still be in position to win, Anderson said they didn’t deserve to be.

The coach agreed.

“They were a step ahead,” said St. Louis. “They were faster than us tonight.”

The Flyers were better in nearly every department. They had the edge in every segment of the game, and they deserve credit for that.

But the Canadiens put in the type of effort that seldom passes at the beginning of a season but definitely won’t at this juncture or moving forward. If they’re to take one thing from this game — aside from the point in the standings — it should be a wake-up call.

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