St. Louis runs Canadiens through hard practice after ‘soft’ performance in Boston

Montreal Canadiens head coach Martin St. Louis explains a drill during practice. (Ryan Remiorz/CP)

BROSSARD, Que.—It’s a four-letter word and Martin St. Louis used it twice to describe his team’s pitiful performance in a 5-2 loss to the Boston Bruins on Saturday.

“The Bruins were good tonight,” he first told reporters at TD Garden. “I thought, tonight, it wasn’t that we weren’t working; it was that we weren’t working well.”

And then St. Louis said it—the one word no hockey player wants to wear as a label: “I felt we were a little soft, too.”

Just a minute later, when asked about what it was that took the Canadiens so far offbeat, St. Louis said it again.

“We gave them way too much respect in terms of one-on-one battles, hits, hockey battles for pucks,” he started. “We were soft tonight.”

St. Louis harps on honest assessment. He believes it’s fundamental to a team’s process to look itself in the mirror and tell the truth. And he generally doesn’t mince his words—one way or the other—when asked for his own evaluation.

After a 6-5 loss to the Vegas Golden Knights on Thursday, the coach said the Canadiens got what they deserved, and he was justified. Earlier in the week, he praised their effort in a 2-1 loss to Calgary that saw them produce 37 scoring chances, and he was right in suggesting they deserved better.

He talked a lot about how that game was the fourth in a sequence that really impressed him.

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The second one of that sequence was the Canadiens’ best game of the season—a 3-2 overtime win over the Bruins at the Bell Centre—and that’s part of what made this past Saturday’s game such a disappointment.

What else should St. Louis have said about the way his team played in Boston when the eye test revealed such a glaring lack of physical engagement?

His categorization of the team’s performance as “soft” was also completely supported by the numbers.

During Sportsnet’s broadcast of the game, colleague Kyle Bukauskas turned to Sportlogiq data between the second and third periods to share that the Canadiens had lost over 84 per cent of the puck battles.

If you play that way against the Bruins, you’re going to get mauled.

St. Louis doesn’t want to see the Canadiens play that way against any team, so he made it clear corrections were in order.

“Recently, we haven’t had an easy schedule in terms of our workload, and we’ve been playing quality teams, and over the season you’ll go through downs,” he said on Saturday. “But I think, since the beginning of the year, we’ve hit our biggest down. We’re going to have to keep working and get out of it. Every team goes through this, and it makes you work.”

Work started early on Monday. And while practice was only 50 minutes—the Canadiens are traveling to California in the afternoon—it was a hard 50 minutes.

About 15 minutes into it, St. Louis stopped a drill because it wasn’t being executed to his satisfaction, and he raised his voice and demanded an adjustment.

Just 10 minutes later, the Canadiens engaged in one-on-one battles, which is something they rarely do at practice.

It ended with a couple of rounds of wind sprints the length of the ice.

Message sent.

Message received, too.

“It’s all about accountability and realizing the effort we brought against Boston wasn’t good enough,” said Mike Matheson, “so you have to respond and show that you realize that you get that, and that you’re going to come to work and be ready to be work and follow that up with another good practice tomorrow, once we get out west, and then be ready to play against Anaheim (Wednesday).”

Monday’s session wasn’t just punitive.

In addition to the battle drills and wind sprints, St. Louis pushed the Canadiens through a series of drills mostly aimed at correcting what he felt was the biggest area of concern outside of physical engagement—the team’s forecheck.

As for his intentions, he said, “I don’t even think today as a bullet, to be honest; it’s just the truth.”

“We’ve got to be accountable to one another,” St. Louis added. “I’m pretty sure the players expected this kind of day today. If a young guy didn’t expect that, I’m sure he was told by an older guy that had been in the league long enough to know what’s coming.

“But I don’t believe in just making them work to work. You’ve got to have a purpose behind it, and I feel like, today, we killed two birds with one stone.”

Sean Monahan said it was the type of practice the Canadiens needed.

The 29-year-old Matheson agreed, adding that it was equally important for him and many of his younger to see a different side of St. Louis, who typically takes a more nurturing approach.

“I think it makes it that much more impactful,” Matheson said. “A coach can come in kicking and screaming every day, and, at a certain point, that becomes the norm. And then once it kind of gets a little bit elevated, it’s not as impactful. So for him to bridge the gap between his regular self and then have a day where, yeah, we got bag skated at the end, I think it’s that much more impactful, and I don’t think there’s anybody in the locker room that was questioning why we needed to do that.”

Enter Struble

As the Canadiens depart for Anaheim, Arber Xhekaj is staying behind. He’s still nursing an upper-body injury that’s currently being labeled by the team as a day-to-day ailment.

He brings a physical element to the game that was sorely missing against the Bruins, and you have to think part of the reason Jayden Struble is on the verge of making his NHL debut is because he can help supplant that.

The six-foot, 205-pound chiseled defenceman was called up from the Laval Rocket on Monday, and he said he’s ready to provide what has always defined his game.

“I’m hard to play against, physical, kind of annoying out there,” Struble said, and that checks out.

He was drafted 46th overall in 2019 because of all that, and because he was a physical specimen.

Now, after developing other key aspects to his game—especially his decision-making—through four seasons at Northeastern University, Struble will attempt to show he can be relied on at the highest level.

He got the call from Rocket coach J.F. Houle while he was out for lunch on Sunday, and he’s coming in hungry to prove himself this week on the road.

Imagine not only getting called up to the NHL for the first time but also being told to pack a bag because you’re going to have a chance to debut in California?

“That was crazy,” Struble said. “It’s the craziest thing I’ve heard. Really cool trip, and, for my first time here, it’s really special.”

We’ll see just how special it is, and perhaps as soon as the Canadiens take on the Ducks on Wednesday.

Jordan Harris, who is traveling with the Canadiens, missed practice for a maintenance day on Monday. He has been dealing with a lower-body injury, and we’ll have to wait and see if he’s healthy enough to play.

Even if he is, it’s not out of the question that Struble dresses for Gustav Lindstrom.

Either way, he’s likely to get in soon, and this is going to be quite an experience for him.

The Canadiens go from Anaheim to San Jose to play the Sharks. Then they play the Kings in Los Angeles on Saturday, which will be followed by their rookie dinner. They’ll have a day off Sunday, practice in L.A. on Monday, and then finish the road trip in Columbus.

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