St. Louis’ Canadiens playing with pride, confidence restored

Josh Anderson and Cole Caufield had three points each as the Montreal Canadiens defeated the Toronto Maple Leafs with a 5-2 victory.

MONTREAL — It wasn’t just the fans who returned to the Bell Centre on Monday; the Montreal Canadiens were there, too.

Not that they hadn’t played infinitely better over the five games Martin St. Louis had coached prior. It’s just that they hadn’t played as well as they did against the Toronto Maple Leafs in any other game this year.

On this night, the Canadiens took a 5-0 lead before the third period and rode it to a 5-2 win in the end. The line of Nick Suzuki, Cole Caufield and Josh Anderson dominated, combining for three goals, seven points, eight shots on net and 10 hits. Jeff Petry extended his point streak to four games. And everyone else in a red jersey played well — and together.

Thus, the Canadiens were serenaded by 10,552 fans in attendance (the Canadiens sold every ticket available to them to fill the 50 per cent of the building that was permitted) who broke out into Ole, Ole, Oles and Nanana Nas well before the final whistle blew.

This was no accident. It’s been a steady build since St. Louis stepped in for Dominique Ducharme. The fun appeared almost instantaneously restored, and with it came the engagement and commitment of the players.

Sure, the Canadiens lost their first three games under the new coach. But they played like a team and lost with dignity.

With each passing game, it felt like this first three-game winning streak of the season was coming.

What changed?

“Just playing for each other,” said Anderson. “You see everybody after each shift going out there and playing as hard as they can, and not only doing that but being smart on the ice too and knowing the situation that we’re in and the players that are on the ice of the opposing team. Whenever the stars are on the ice like (Auston) Matthews and (Mitch) Marner, whatever line’s out there, just being aware of those things and not getting caught in certain situations for them to hurt us.

“I think that we still have things to learn, and we’re learning each and every day, and I think that’s why we’re getting better as a hockey club.”

What the Canadiens have gained out of that process is much more important than the three consecutive wins they’ve notched against quality competitors like the Maple Leafs, the New York Islanders and the St. Louis Blues. They could win their remaining 31 games — spoiler: they’re not going to — and even that would be less important than what their coach said they’re getting out of this.

“Confidence,” said St. Louis.

Without it through so many of the first 45 games of their season, the Canadiens weren’t the Canadiens.

More and more of their pride was stripped away with each crushing loss, and their confidence had completely eroded.

It appeared irredeemable only 10 days ago, but suddenly it’s back.

That’s vital for the growth of this team.

“I think to be successful as a team in this league, and as an individual, I think you need some swagger, and I think we’re building a lot of swagger right now,” said St. Louis. “And swagger is not cockiness or arrogance; it’s just believing in yourself and feeling good about yourself. And I think we have that.”

You see it in Suzuki, who registered his team-leading 21st assist of the season against the Maple Leafs. And you see it in Caufield, who now has five goals and eight points in his last six games after scoring only one goal and eight points through his first 30 games.

“Maybe the change has gotten him to reset mentally,” said St. Louis. “He’s playing free. He makes mistakes sometimes, for sure. I made plenty of them on the ice. But he’s doing many more good things than making mistakes. So, a coach has to live a bit with those errors, so long as the good things are there.”

It’s an approach that’s worked for the young players, but also for the veterans.

Anderson, who now has three goals in his last two games, has benefited. Petry, who has five points in his last four games, looks like the guy who had three consecutive 40-point seasons before losing himself completely under Ducharme. And even Brendan Gallagher, who notched two assists against Toronto to break out of a 12-game slump without a point, is regaining swagger.

It’s nearly everyone, really.

As a result, the Canadiens look like a team again. And not a moment too soon, because it would’ve been a shame for fans to finally pile back into the Bell Centre only to have to watch those other guys.

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