Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien stood Saturday night just down the hallway from where his Toronto Maple Leafs counterpart had two weeks earlier groused about the under-belly of what had been an easy win.
Subsequent results showed that Randy Carlyle was correct on April 13 when he seemed perplexed at a lack of focus in a 5-1 win, a game in which they chased Canadiens goaltender Carey Price from the net. Much of what he’d seen has been on display since, and done nothing to silence those who believe the Leafs will be one and done in the playoffs. Canadiens fans can only hope Therrien’s analysis following Saturday’s 4-1 win turns out to be as accurate as Carlyle’s earlier suspicions. “We are ready for the playoffs,” Therrien said Saturday, in both official languages. “We are ready.”
The Canadiens hunkered down to await their playoff fate Sunday, when Ottawa’s 4-2 win over the Boston Bruins handed Montreal the Northeast Division title and a first-round engagement with the Senators, after answering questions posed in the wake of that 5-1 loss. In what could prove to be a stroke of genius, Therrien started Peter Budaj in goal. That not only gave Price a day to rest, but it avoided a return to the scene of the April 13 crime. Beyond that, this was a game in which the Canadiens stood up to whatever physical challenges the Leafs threw at them. It matters not whether people harbour the perception that they aren’t as tough as other teams or believe, as Joffrey Lupul suggested, that key for the Leafs was to make things tough on “them and their small players.” What matters is the Canadiens themselves do not seem to believe it. “It’s all about us,” was a phrase uttered by captain Brian Gionta and Brendan Gallagher, among others. And it was Lars Eller, the best player on the ice for either team, who gently reminded Lupul that the game is not won “on the weight scale or in the gym.”
It was the Canadiens who threw the first significant hit of the game, with Jarred Tinordi flattening Mikhail Grabovski creating a turnover that led to the Canadiens first goal. Tinordi was called up from the Hamilton Bulldogs ahead of Thursday’s win over the Winnipeg Jets and seems to have heeded Therrien’s suggestion to him that: “This is a big chance for you.”
There was much to like about Saturday’s win for a head coach whose team has lost six of eight games before closing out with back-to-back wins. The underpinnings – best line outplaying the other team’s best line; discipline; smart, effective puck moving; and a penalty kill that allowed one shot in three chances in the second period – suggested a focused team prepared to execute a game plan. As much as everybody in the Canadiens dressing room said after the game that it was all about themselves, so, too, was there a repeated reference to limiting the Leafs’ time and space. Clearly, Therrien’s message resonated.
Gionta was asked whether he’d have any words for youngsters such as Gallagher or Alex Galchenyuk going into the playoffs. Gallagher, in particular, seems form-fitted to be a going concern into the playoffs, with his annoying smile and willingness to talk it up with opposing players augmented by what Eller described as a bulldog style of play. It’s not hard to see Gallagher being in the middle of something at every whistle.
“There’s not much you can really say,” Gionta said. “They have to go out and experience it themselves. They will feel the difference in urgency and pace.”
Josh Gorges would say that the end-of-season slump that now seemed a little farther back in the rear-view mirror was a timely reminder that no team is going to win “16 games in a row” in the playoffs. And as the Leafs quietly filed off the ice following Saturday’s game, the Canadiens were properly subdued, gathering at the blueline to congratulate Budaj. P.K. Subban windmilled his arms in the direction of a group of fans dressed in Canadiens jerseys who were crowding around the ice-level seats at the Air Canada Centre, but that was more a gesture of thanks than an instigation. It was almost as if the Canadiens could already picture themselves being up 1-0, their sights set on Game 2. Ready? Sure seemed that way.