‘Dikembe’ Montembeault seizing big opportunity with Canadiens

Shea Theodore scored the OT winner as the Montreal Canadiens fell to the Vegas Golden Knights 4-3.

This was the place for Samuel Montembeault to land, and not just because it’s where he grew up.

The 25-year-old Becancour, Que., native couldn’t have known it when the Montreal Canadiens claimed him on waivers from the Florida Panthers back on Oct. 2. Naturally, he was excited to be back in his home province and joining the team he pulled for as a kid, to still be in the NHL because Carey Price was away in the NHL/NHLPA players assistance program and the organization wanted goaltender-of-the-future Cayden Primeau playing games in the American Hockey League instead of watching games at this level from the bench.

Montembeault probably thought he might get some spot duty, enabling him to bump his stock up a bit before Price would eventually return and push him back to the waiver wire, and he likely believed that would be more than he might get elsewhere.

This wasn’t the opportunity he was dreaming of when he was drafted 77th overall in 2015 by the Panthers, but it was going to be better than the one he was getting in Florida, with Sergei Bobrovsky locked in and young phenom Spencer Knight rising.

A year ago, it couldn’t have been much worse, with Bobrovsky, Knight and Chris Driedger ahead of Montembeault on the Panthers’ depth chart. He made a combined 25 appearances with their team over the two seasons prior, but none over the course of the 2020-21 season.

So, if you had told Montembeault on the day he landed with the Canadiens that he’d still be with this team and have 16 appearances under his belt before the halfway point of the season, he’d have surely considered that an unexpected development.

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“I probably wouldn’t have believed you,” Montembeault said after Thursday’s 4-3 overtime loss to the Vegas Golden Knights. “But I’m really happy with the situation right now.”

How could he not be? Not only is he playing often, he’s playing behind a last-place team that forces him to be at his best every time he steps in front of the net. And Montembeault is rising to that challenge despite having only two wins to his name.

He deserved a third on Thursday after notching the second with a 49-save performance against the Dallas Starts Tuesday. He made another 49 saves against Vegas — none of them better than the William Karlsson backhand-forehand overtime breakaway attempt he turned aside seconds before Shea Theodore made a world-class move on Christian Dvorak and ended the game.

“I’d have liked to have won to get the team’s first winning streak of the season,” Montembeault said.

But hey, on Thursday he became the first Canadiens goaltender in their 112-year history to face more than 50 shots in consecutive games. And in turning as many of them as he did aside, he’s revived his NHL career and turned some heads in the process.

“He’s been so good for us,” said Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot. “Very happy for him. He’s young, trying to prove himself in the league, and he’s had some incredible performances for us.

“He’s really quiet, just goes about his business. He’s just a young, baby-faced kid, but you wouldn’t know it by the way he’s playing. He looks like a seasoned vet in the net, and I feel like as he goes here he’s only getting better for us.”

As the Canadiens go, Montembeault is going to be seeing a lot more of that net.

Price, who hasn’t played a game this season, continues to recover from summer knee surgery and, since last we checked, hasn’t been on the ice since mid-December. And Canadiens backup Jake Allen, who took on most starts in October and December, will now be sidelined another eight weeks after suffering a lower-body injury against the Boston Bruins on Jan. 12.

It won’t be easy, but Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme believes Montembeault will continue to rise to the occasion.

“I know him for a while now,” said Ducharme. “He was in junior, and we had him too at Hockey Canada. He’s matured a lot as a player. What I like with him is the way he shows up every day. He’s working really hard with (Canadiens goaltending coach) Eric (Raymond) every day, working on his game, and I think you can see it’s paying off. He comes into the game with a plan and I think he’s getting more and more comfortable within that plan. It brings him success. With the news we got today with Jake, (and with) Carey being out, it’s a great opportunity for him.”

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You can see it. This unexpected time in the spotlight is giving Montembeault much to smile about, despite the results not being there for the Canadiens.

After Thursday’s game, he came to his Zoom conference laughing after having just been informed several members of the media have dubbed him ‘Dikembe’ — a most fitting nickname after Dikembe Mutombo, who was a legendary shot blocker in the NBA.

“He loves it,” said Canadiens VP of communications Chantal Machabee. “He cracked up laughing and made (Mutumbo’s patented) finger-waving sign.”

This young goaltender has earned the attention.

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