Inevitably, there was the perception that this was a measuring stick game.
But if you’re inclined to frame Wednesday’s date with the conference-leading Boston Bruins as the first true test of their promising start to the season, the Montreal Canadiens’ losing effort was less an “F” than it was an “Incomplete.”
The Habs were plainly frustrated at coming out on the short end of a 2-1 scoreline, but that’s better than resignation – this year’s Habs, unlike the last-place edition of a year ago, expects to win.
In truth, this was a close game that for long swaths was Montreal’s for the taking. That they couldn't close the deal was irritating - a win would have leap-frogged Montreal into first - but not damaging if you believe the post-game comments from the Habs' room.
“We’re not going to be outclassed by any team. We have a good team. We’re confident no matter who we play against, we just didn’t play our best tonight,” said Montreal captain Brian Gionta.
So does this setback count as the kind of adversity that can help a team develop?
“You learn from everything. It was a game that would have been nice to have. We need to learn from it, we need to learn from being able to steal one in the second period and come in with a lead – we’ve got to capitalize on that opportunity when we have it.”
Veteran winger Colby Armstrong called the game “a little reality check” and said it’s precisely the sort of close-checking, evenly-matched contest they’ve targeted as a key to improvement.
“Those are the kinds of games you have to win, it’s not something we want to give up, especially at home,” Armstrong said.
Unlike the typical blood-and-guts encounters between these bitter rivals, this was a game that featured little in the way of extra-curriculars. The only flashpoints came late in the game, and had nothing of the venom that has all too often been spilled in Habs/Bruins games.
Perhaps that’s because Boston – undermanned by injuries to tough guy Shawn Thornton and role players Daniel Paille and Brad Marchand – understood that this year’s Canadiens aren’t cowed by the physical game.
Montreal’s Brandon Prust, who has four fighting majors to show from his first nine games, briefly locked up with Boston’s Adam McQuaid after a net-front scrum in the third period, but that was as close as he got to finding someone to tangle with.
No, the test this night would be one of skill and determination rather than brawn.
There were early indications that this could be a tough night for the Canadiens and they only multiplied as the evening wore on.
In the warm-up, goalie Carey Price was caught flush in the groin by teammate Lars Eller’s shot.
He retreated to the dressing room.
When the puck was dropped the 25-year-old was at his post, but the Habs’ run of crummy luck was really just beginning.
In the second minute of the game, Armstrong sprayed a close-in chance wide of Boston Bruins’ goalie Tuukka Rask’s net as he was being taken to the ice by a defender.
“Ugh. That,” he grimaced afterward, “can drive a guy crazy. I just have to start knocking those in. I should have five goals by now.”
Then rookie Boston defenceman Dougie Hamilton helped parry a pair of chances that fell to Tomas Plekanec and Rene Bourque.
It would get worse for Plekanec, who in the second period had a clean breakaway but inexplicably lost control of the puck as he was stickhandling – it was less deke than it was dump-in.
Eller also squandered a breakaway chance, it was a sign of futility to come.
After buzzing around the Boston net for much of the first – it took more than 10 minutes for the Bruins to register a shot on net – the Habs finally opened the scoring when defenceman P.K. Subban notched his first of the year on a second-period power-play.
Subban now has three points in as many games since ending a contract squabble with the team.
The Habs’ Mr. Everything, Andrei Markov, got his team-leading ninth point by assisting on the goal.
Then Boston coach Claude Julien stepped to the fore.
All bench bosses play hunches during games, few pay off as handsomely as a move Julien made to start the third.
He decided to stick slumping forward Tyler Seguin onto his top line with centre David Krejci and winger Milan Lucic.
It bears mentioning at this point that Seguin’s only goal of the season before the opening faceoff in the third period was into an empty net.
He took precisely 14 seconds to remedy the situation.
Latching on to a cross-ice feed from Krejci – who had pounced on a Plekanec giveaway – Seguin bamboozled Montreal defenceman Alexei Emelin and zipped a shot past Montreal goalie Carey Price.
Less than two minutes later, the trio were at it again, as Seguin wheeled through centre ice and fired a pass to Lucic on his left, the burly winger drove wide of Emelin and put a perfect pass onto Krejci’s stick who had outraced his countryman Plekanec to the front of the net and chipped the puck past a helpless Price.
That was all the offence the Bruins would need – Julien presents a formidable challenge to his opponents when Boston has a lead.
And Rask did more than his part, stymieing David Desharnais on a pair of chances tight-in.
Despite a late Montreal power-play, the outcome wasn’t really in doubt, it ended 2-1 to the visitors.
The Bruins reign atop the Eastern Conference at 7-1-1, while the Habs saw their five-game home winning streak end.
But it appears the two teams will be fighting it out on something approaching level terms this season – particularly given Boston’s brutal power-play, which went 0-for-4 on the night, and is now 3-for-34 on the season.
Afterward, Julien brushed aside any suggestion that he is pleasantly surprised at his team’s start.
“It’s our goal to be at the top of the standings,” the former Habs’ coach said. “We consider ourselves to be a team that should be among the best, so it’s not really a surprise.”
What might be a surprise is that the Canadiens, on the strength of this showing at least, aren’t all that far behind.