The way the Montreal Canadiens see it, they are a very good NHL team that just happened to play their two worst games this season against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
“Yeah, I’d say so,” Habs defenceman Josh Gorges said Tuesday, after a practice in Toronto. “The first game was the home opener and we got all amped up. Everyone was trying to do too much and we were chaotic. The last game was just one of those nights. We weren’t ready to play.”
So Wednesday’s game against the Maple Leafs at the Air Canada Centre, Gorges and every one of his teammates who were questioned along similar lines said, is not about avenging that 6-0 embarrassment on Feb. 9 in Montreal. And it is certainly not about paying Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski back for his alleged chomp on the forearm of Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty.
“What happened yesterday, or two weeks before, doesn’t matter,” Gorges said. “We get a chance … to go back and have a good game and get two points.”
Get two points. That phrase was uttered so often in the Canadiens dressing room Tuesday you could just hear head coach Michel Therrien drilling it into them during a video session before they got on the ice.
It’s about that and showing the Maple Leafs what the Habs have learned since that drubbing 18 days ago. The chief lesson was not to come out for the first period and let the opposition bring the game to them. The Leafs scored twice in the first six minutes of that game, outshot the Canadiens 12-8 in the first period and never looked back.
“You can’t come out flat and expect to win,” Canadiens winger Brandon Prust said. “[The Maple Leafs] are playing good hockey so we have to come out high-tempo and set the tone early.
“They play hard. They have a lot of guys over there who battle and they’re playing good hockey.”
Prust is playing hard enough to be rewarded with a spot on the top line with centre Tomas Plekanec after Rene Bourque was diagnosed with a concussion Tuesday. The news came as a “shock” to Therrien, who said Bourque was sent for tests for what the team had thought were flu symptoms that did not go away after he missed the last two games.
Therrien said neither the doctors nor Bourque know when he suffered the concussion. (It could have been more than a week ago, which had some wondering if the punch Leafs winger Colton Orr used to flatten Bourque in that 6-0 win might have been the reason.)
Since that flat opening period against the Leafs in front of their own fans, the Canadiens have taken Therrien’s insistence to come out hard to heart. They moved to the top of the Eastern Conference before Tuesday’s games, on a recent 6-0-2 run.
In all but one of those eight games, the Canadiens held the opposition to six shots or less in the first period, and they were only outshot twice in that span in the opening 20 minutes.
“We looked at it as a game to learn from,” said Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban, a Toronto native who knows how emotional games between these old NHL rivals can get. “So far, we’ve done a great job.
“For us right now, it’s just about coming out, executing the game plan and getting the two points. Obviously, there’s a little more emotion involved in the game but, ultimately, we just want to walk out of here with two points.”
Leafs head coach Randy Carlyle is in full agreement about the need to separate emotion from nailing down a playoff spot.
“That’s all part of the white noise that we’ve talked about,” he said. “I think two teams are competing for two points; that’s got to be the focus of our group. I know for sure that’s what we’re talking about.
“[The Canadiens] are winning a lot of hockey games and they’re getting a lot of points. We have to be prepared for our ‘A’ game. All the other stuff is a sidebar as far as we’re concerned. We’re going to focus on playing the game.”