Montembeault further cements status as Canadiens starter in thrilling shootout win

Sam Montembeault made 46 saves and was perfect in the shootout to help the Montreal Canadiens pick up a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers.

MONTREAL— It’s a Marty Mantra, one of several refrains that rule Montreal Canadiens coach/philosopher Martin St. Louis’ daily vernacular.

“We’re chasing consistency,” he always says of his young team. 

Some of his players are getting closer to it, but one has definitely found it.

If you’d have asked me three years ago if I thought I’d eventually be writing that about waiver-wire pickup Samuel Montembeault, I’d have laughed at you. 

But even the goaltender, who made the fourth-most saves of his NHL career in a 4-3 win over the New York Rangers Saturday, knows you wouldn’t have asked.

“Most of them were saying I was an AHL goalie at best when I first came here,” Montembeault said. “When I bought my house in Trois-Rivieres, people were saying that was perfect because it was going to be close for playing in the East Coast League.”

He was laughing about the thought of playing for the affiliate Lions from the Canadiens dressing room on Saturday, his face turning a shade of red that matched the welt on his collarbone from a Jacob Trouba shot that pelted him at full velocity in the last second of overtime, and this was after he snickered at another memory, saying he could recall every one of the five goals he gave up in his Canadiens debut in Buffalo. 

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He started describing them from back on Oct. 14, 2021, bringing us back to a game that now feels like it occurred a decade ago after watching Montembeault author what might be considered the best performance of his NHL career on Saturday.

He had no chance on the goals New York scored after Brendan Gallagher broke a 24-game slump to score the first of three the home team managed in the first 23 minutes of the game, and he was the main reason the Rangers left the Bell Centre with only one point banked.

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By the time Montembeault made his last save on fellow Quebecer Alexis Lafreniere in the shootout — after completely rejecting Mika Zibanejad with his best one — there couldn’t have been a single person who originally suggested he’d be an ECHL starter not lobbying for him to be appearing far more frequently than he has for this Montreal team carrying three goaltenders.

St. Louis can hear the call.

When asked after Montembeault’s magnificent performance if he thinks he has a No. 1 on his hands, the coach responded, “He’s playing like a No. 1.”

The 27-year-old has been doing that since last season, steadily building up his solid sample to confirm his current status and, in the process, turning his teammates into believers.

“The improvement he’s made, the way he’s worked at his craft,” started Gallagher. “I still remember his first game in Buffalo didn’t go very well, but the way he handled it he never lost belief in himself and continued to work and work and work. Now he’s at this point in his career where he’s winning games for us, and that’s hard to do in this league.

“He comes and competes. Whenever he’s in that net in practice, he works hard. Whenever it’s an off day for him, he works hard. He doesn’t really take any days off. He’s a very hard-working kid, and I think for him, playing for the Montreal Canadiens is very special.”

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And the Canadiens having Montembeault signed through the end of this season for a pittance, and for each of the next three for just $3.15 million per, is feeling like it’s also going to be very special.

That’s not a conclusion being drawn just solely on one otherworldly performance; it’s based on what he’s shown day-in, day-out from last season to this one, with a gold-medal performance as Canada’s best player at the 2023 World Championship of Hockey offering more evidence in between.

The consistency is what stands out, and the value of that — of feeling like you know what you’re going to get almost every time Montembeault steps in front of his net — is measured in premium currency.

“That’s gold for a coach,” said St. Louis. “Every player, if you say his name and I think he’s consistent and I know what I’m getting every night, the more of those guys you have, the better position put your team in. And that’s what we’re chasing collectively. But, honestly, it’s a direct correlation with individually.”

Consistency is building for young members of the team’s core, which has been reflected in the collective over the last month or so of Canadiens hockey. 

It’s not fully established quite yet, but it’s there for Montembeault.

As St. Louis said, “Sam’s found that.”

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I thought he’d just be a placeholder when he was claimed from the Florida Panthers near the eve of the 2021-22 season, when it was believed Carey Price was just days away from recovering from off-season surgery. And as Montembeault humbly began his Canadiens journey, with Price entering the NHL/NHLPA’s player assistance program, the thought he’d inevitably follow as the team’s next starter never occurred. 

But watching the six-foot-three, 222-pound goalie manipulate his body every which way to make save after save on Saturday, watching him absorb Trouba’s howitzer after wisely waiting out Zibanejad’s cheeky change-up and watching him deny that ridiculous Zibanejad move in the shootout was seeing him only confirm that he has been exactly that for some time and deserves to be that moving forward.

Montembeault’s appeared in 18 of 39 Canadiens games so far this season and, barring injury, there won’t be a way to keep him from playing in many more of the last 43.

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