Canadiens show small progress in rematch with much stronger Kings

Cam Talbot recorded a 24 save shutout and Quinton Byfield notched two goals as the Los Angeles Kings get a win on the road, beating the Montreal Canadiens 4-0.

MONTREAL — At least two of the three periods the Montreal Canadiens played on Thursday looked markedly different from the three they played in Los Angeles on Nov. 25, when the Kings put the proverbial sleeper hold on them and dropped them to the canvas after establishing an early lead.

We get it, calling this progress — a 4-0 loss for the Canadiens at the Bell Centre to match the 4-0 loss they suffered to the Kings at Arena — seems counterintuitive. But this game didn’t mirror the last one, in which the Canadiens were dominated from puck drop to final goal horn.

You also can’t just disregard where these teams are at in their respective development.

The Kings are peaking in theirs, and it’s been a steady build to this point, with elite players like Phillip Danault and Pierre-Luc Dubois added over two of the last three summers to help give them arguably the best centre line in hockey, while wingers like Quinton Byfield have developed and made them a more potent offensive team over that time. What they are defensively is a nightmare for any team to face, with an NHL record-setting 11th road win to start a season earned Thursday serving as evidence of the fact.

At least on the scoresheet.

Reality was a bit different though, as the Canadiens stormed out of the gate and totally outplayed the Kings before walking back through it on their way back to their locker room down 2-0.

“I thought we had a good period, we had a good start, we were executing, we had a lot of looks,” said head coach Martin St. Louis. “If anybody watched and didn’t know anything about the league… I don’t think they would’ve guessed that LA would be up 2-0.”

St. Louis added that while his team was losing after that frame, “I didn’t feel they were beating us.”

The Canadiens not feeling defeated after the first and maintaining their level of play until Byfield made it 2-0 on the power play in the 19th minute of the second was a win for them, too, because that’s where they’re at in their process. It’ll still be a couple of years before they have the same type of components littered throughout their lineup that the Kings do, and a couple more years of refining their identity and structure in order to play as seamlessly as the Kings have since the start of the season.

But games like this one push them a baby step further along.

Again, that’s not an easy realization to come to after a second shutout to the same team in a season, but it’s one the Canadiens will come to and take something valuable from.

“I think for as frustrating as it is to lose, you have to maybe take a step back tomorrow and look at it without the emotion of losing the game,” said Mike Matheson, who played an excellent 23:37 but finished minus-1. “But if you compare the two games (against the Kings), it’s a totally different script that we were able to generate. I think we generated a lot of chances. I don’t know what the chances were exactly, but I’m sure we had more than them.”

That wasn’t at all the case on Nov. 25, but it was absolutely the case through two periods of this game, with the Canadiens leading that category 23-17. 

Sean Monahan hit the post in the first, Nick Suzuki struck it in the second, the Canadiens missed open nets in between, and they forced Cam Talbot to make difficult saves when they registered shots.

Drew Doughty felt they gave the Kings all they could handle.

“They had a lot of juice, I thought,” he said. “We just weathered the storm and took over the game.”

As the Kings have over and over again this season, locked into their patented 1-3-1 system and executing it to near perfection. They use the lead as a blanket and drape it over their opponents to suffocate them.

Still, the Canadiens were able to poke air holes through it, until they weren’t in the third period, which effectively ended 12 minutes before the closing buzzer when Trevor Moore scored the last goal (just like he did the last time these two teams met).

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At least the Canadiens adjusted before that and made this a game Talbot said was one of the harder ones for the Kings to win. They regrouped as a five-man unit in their own zone to break the puck up the ice and succeeded far more in that regard than they did when they were giving pucks away nonstop two weeks ago in Los Angeles.

“A lot better job of staying connected,” Matheson said. “I think we were pretty disconnected when we were playing there.”

The Canadiens progressed in between, too, despite yet another hit to their already-depleted depth when Alex Newhook went down in a 5-1 loss to the Florida Panthers on Nov. 30. The results were two wins, one loss in regulation and one in overtime, but the results continue to be secondary to the process.

It’s been healthy, leaving St. Louis feeling on Thursday morning like the Canadiens were more consistent in their effort and more organized in their structure.

He was anything but discouraged at the end of the night, especially after seeing his team look vastly different in attacking the Kings’ structure through two-thirds of the game.

“They play it really well — the 1-3-1,” he said.

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He added the Kings made adjustments after the Canadiens broke it several times through the first 40 minutes. Then he emphasized that the growth process must continue.

“For us, it’s to keep learning a little bit,” St. Louis said. “You can’t be afraid to fail because it’s going to be difficult. We tried a few different things and sometimes it was there, we just didn’t execute. Sometimes we got past the first wave and the next play got turned over instead of keeping it simple. But I liked the commitment of our guys to try to do the things that we were trying to do and, unfortunately, when you’re chasing the game in the third, down three, you’re probably not doing the same thing you would if it were a close game. I don’t think we try to stickhandle through there if it was a close game, but you’ve got to try to manufacture something at that point, so you’re taking a little bit more risk…It’s not an easy defensive scheme to take risks against because there’s so many sticks and they cover so much ice. That’s why if you get up on them, you’re probably staying more risk-free through it…”

And you’re probably suffering less at the end of the game.

Still, this one didn’t feel quite as bad.

“I know we lost and stuff, and it’s a lesson, but I loved that part of the game (of committing to breaking the trap),” said St. Louis. “The easiest thing to do is throw it in. And maybe there will be a time to throw it in, but right now we’re trying to learn to play hockey.”

You could look at the score and think the Canadiens are failing.

Not to suggest they’re completely succeeding — especially after a game in which they didn’t register a single goal — but executing adjustments against a much better team that dominated you just 12 days ago is still progress that can’t be ignored.

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