Sometimes, words that sound suspiciously like false bravado turn out to be the real thing.
With the Montreal Canadiens mired in a series of ugly defeats eight days ago, head coach Michel Therrien, with as much calm as he could muster, insisted for the umpteenth time “adversity is good.”
A couple of pressure-filled road victories later – one of them an emphatic win over a hated rival, the Toronto Maple Leafs – and Therrien’s composed demeanour looks anything but contrived.
Maybe there’s something to recasting dark periods as teaching moments.
After a brisk practice Monday, Therrien said of his squad: “We are exactly where I think we need to be. We played two games last week where there was a playoff atmosphere, on the road, and we reacted very well to that pressure.”
Much has been made this season about how Therrien, a combustible and caustic character in his first stint in Montreal and subsequent sojourn in Pittsburgh, has mellowed.
The last couple weeks have been an object lesson in how.
He was visibly irritated after a couple of capitulations at the hands of the Leafs and Philadelphia Flyers after the Habs sewed up their playoff spot.
But there were no public tirades, no bag skates.
Instead, he bit his tongue and turned to some nuts-and-bolts coaching.
This season’s compressed schedule has presented a not-insignificant problem for NHL teams, one that makes the Habs resurgence from 15th in the conference a year ago, to second, all the more remarkable.
Teams simply don’t have much time to practice, which is why Therrien insisted on going back to basics in a pair of lengthy on-ice sessions last week that focused on following the Habs swift-moving system.
“I think this team responds well when we have quality practice time. We certainly did last week,” he said.
After following up a 5-1 blowout loss to the Washington Capitals with a 3-2 loss to non-playoff team, the New Jersey Devils, then eking out a victory in Winnipeg against a desperate Jets team that found out in the second intermission its playoff hopes had been doused, the Habs looked a lot like the team they’ve been for much of the season in the finale against the Maple Leafs.
Therrien and his players had insisted a week was plenty of time to pull out of the 2-6 swan dive of the previous two weeks, and there’s evidence they were right.
And now, the Habs will benefit from a trio of practice days this week to add some new tactical wrinkles and iron out a few kinks – the penalty kill remains a trouble spot, it was the first thing the club worked on Monday.
“It’s almost like a short training camp,” Therrien said.
That could be just what the Habs need as Therrien prepares to match wits with the Sens counterpart Paul MacLean; it’s a faceoff between two bench bosses who are virtually shoo-ins for Jack Adams Award nominations (NHL coach of the year).
“He’s done a remarkable job this season with that club, they’ve always been very well prepared. A rivalry will be born with the Senators, because I believe rivalries are only really created in the playoffs,” Therrien said.
The Habs and Senators split their four regular-season meetings (two were decided in shootouts) and the nascent rivalry will doubtless be fuelled by the fact these are two closely matched teams.
The Sens’ Erik Karlsson and Montreal’s P.K. Subban are the NHL’s two most dynamic young defencemen; each team can roll out three scoring lines; and if the Habs have scored more goals this year, Ottawa has been the more hermetic defensive team.
The goaltending matchup could go some way to deciding the outcome, and Montreal’s Carey Price appears to have righted the ship after a terrible stretch where he lost six of seven starts.
Therrien hasn’t always been reputed for his handling of goaltenders, but he appears to have dealt adroitly with Price, who is seeing vastly more shots in practice than in mid-season.
The 25-year-old netminder echoed his coach Monday in suggesting the recent barren spell could be a net benefit for a team that hadn’t set a foot wrong this year.
“We didn’t have a bright stretch there … but we have to be confident going into the playoffs,” he said.