Experienced veterans helping Canadiens seize current opportunity

The Hockey Central panel discuss a pivotal Game 3 between the Montreal Canadiens and the Winnipeg Jets.

MONTREAL — This 5-0 run for the Montreal Canadiens started in their dressing room, where two guys who’ve done nothing but rack up wins throughout their Hall-of-Fame-worthy careers emphasized something that should’ve been obvious but still needed to be said.

It was Eric Staal and Corey Perry addressing their teammates about opportunities like the ones the Canadiens were staring down — behind the Toronto Maple Leafs by two games and facing elimination in Round 1 after coming nowhere near meeting their potential — and how crucial it is to make the most of them. As world champions and Olympic gold medalists who each won the Stanley Cup early in their career and have been chasing it ever since, they were the most fitting people to deliver the message.

“Those guys are leaders,” said Ben Chiarot following the 1-0 win the Canadiens authored on Friday in Winnipeg to take a 2-0 series lead over the Jets. “They’ve been in the league for a long time and had a lot of experiences in the league, in the playoffs, and won Stanley Cups. They’re a huge part of our room. They have all the right things and they know all the right buttons to push as we go along here. They’re invaluable to us.”

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Both of them have played like it, too. Staal, who ended the worst season of his career injured, has a goal and five assists in eight games. Perry has two goals and five points in nine. They’re part of a line, with Joel Armia, which has arguably been Montreal’s most effective at wearing down the opposition in the offensive zone, and they’ve taken care of all the little details in the other areas of the ice.

All of that is essential. Talk isn’t worth a penny if action doesn’t follow, so it was just as important for these Triple Gold Club members to play like the champions that they are.

That their message resonated with the rest of the Canadiens has as much to do with who else could reinforce it, though. Carey Price, Shea Weber and Brendan Gallagher, who have all won gold with Canada, are playing like they know this might be their best opportunity to win the Cup. Tyler Toffoli, Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen — who may not be playing in these games but is in the room and on the bench — have most recently sipped from hockey’s silver chalice and know what it takes to do it again.

And all of them, with Staal and Perry, can have the biggest influence on the Canadiens taking advantage of the opportunity that’s currently in front of them. Sunday will be the first of back-to-back games in front of 2,500 fans at the Bell Centre, and all that experience should play large in the Canadiens proving capable to display the killer instinct necessary to at least push the Jets to the brink of elimination.

In the end, it may be 21-year-old Nick Suzuki, or 20-year-olds Jesperi Kotkaniemi and Cole Caufield delivering the fatal blows to Winnipeg’s season, but it is the experience behind them and around them that can help steady their fingers on the trigger.

If it’s been a blessing so far to these young players, it’s been a godsend to interim head coach Dominique Ducharme, who had never commanded a bench at this level prior to Feb. 24.

In taking over for Claude Julien, he had to institute a new system on the fly and with the schedule not offering him an opportunity to establish it through more than a dozen practices. That Ducharme has sensed a commitment from his players that hasn’t waned since Day 1 — even if that didn’t appear to be the case mid-way through the season — has everything to do with what he’s got in that room.

“(Canadiens general manager) Marc (Bergevin) did a great job bringing in quality guys, winners,” Ducharme said on Saturday. “Experience and skill at every position.”

Ducharme’s choice to lean on it had been scrutinized heavily at the start of the playoffs, but the voices of dissent have faded to the background with the recent success of the team.

And the results are one thing, but it’s Montreal’s process that’s inspiring the most confidence that they can advance to the semifinals for the first time since 2014.

It is a process being driven by players in their mid-to-late 30s, players who understand all too well how fleeting moments like these can be. They have proven they can make the difference, and they’ll have to keep doing it on and off the ice for the Canadiens to succeed.

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