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Canadiens’ loss a tough pill to swallow, but progress under Ducharme continues

Two things immediately come to mind in the aftermath of the Montreal Canadiens‘ most complete effort since their last one against the Vancouver Canucks.

First, Jake Allen saying, after a 2-1 loss to the Winnipeg Jets on Feb. 27, that when Craig Berube took over from Mike Yeo and went on to coach the St. Louis Blues to the 2019 Stanley Cup, it took a good two weeks for him and his teammates to all get on the same page and on board with the plan the new coach was selling. The second is Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme, two days later—and just five after taking over for head coach Claude Julien—saying his team was ahead of schedule in adopting his strategies.

It would be easy to lose sight of the progress the Canadiens have made since after a 2-1 shootout loss to the Canucks. This was a game Carey Price and the Canadiens deserved, one they had stolen away by a mistake in the final minute that wasn’t even egregious and a breakaway move in the shootout Bo Horvat deserves full credit for, and that had to be tough to swallow.

But what the Canadiens should take out of it was that for a third consecutive game, after his struggles cost his goaltending coach Stephane Waite his job last week, Price was nearly perfect. What they should be able to build on was their efficiency on the power play, where Jeff Petry’s goal gave them a 1-0 lead.

Another takeaway was how they played on the penalty kill, stifling over a minute of 5-on-3 pressure from the Canucks towards the end of the first period. And what they should harness is the way they controlled the game over the first 59 minutes—hounding the Canucks on the forecheck and backcheck and giving them very little breathing room—because that is exactly how Ducharme wants them to play.

“I thought we deserved better,” said Phillip Danault. “If we play the same every game, we give ourselves a chance to win every game.”

You often hear stuff like that when a team plays well but loses, but just as important as this being accurate is the fact that Danault and the rest of the Canadiens feel that way.

There’s no time to be discouraged. Not with the schedule as jammed as it is, and certainly not with as much on the line as there is each night in the North-Division race.

The Canucks pulled to within three points of the Canadiens while the Edmonton Oilers jumped three ahead with a win over the Ottawa Senators. Both teams are giving up several games in hand to Montreal, but they’re forcing the Canadiens to make the best of that opportunity and forcing them to not wallow over a game they lost but should’ve won.

The Canadiens had their chances at a convincing win Monday. Tyler Toffoli, who has 15 goals this season, missed a hat trick of them. Brendan Gallagher’s four shots were stopped. And the NHL’s second star of last week, Thatcher Demko, matched Price save for save and made one more in the shootout.

But when Petry said, “I think the style of play was the way we want to play,” boy, was he ever right. And it’s been building since Ducharme took over, with the team having taken six of eight points available in the standings over its four games coming into Monday’s at Rogers Arena, with a power play that’s been humming along at over 40 per cent under new assistant coach and former Canucks player Alex Burrows, and with a penalty kill that has eliminated more than 80 per cent of the opposition’s chances.

Even in overtime, where the Canadiens have now failed to generate a goal in each of their seven attempts, there was improvement on this night.

“It wasn’t perfect,” said Ducharme, but he also rightfully pointed to a puck-possession strategy being implemented that could bear fruit soon. One that would’ve worked better if not for two loose plays in which the Canadiens turned over the puck while they were in full control of it.

It’s why when Price was asked what the team could do better there, he sarcastically laughed and said, “Score first, probably.”

Outside of that, and the missed chances to make this one a laugher, the Canadiens built on the good they established in a 7-1 win over the Jets last Saturday.

“We’re just eliminating plays,” said Price. “Trying to eliminate their speed. When you’re on top of your game and you’re working in unison, the system works.”

And when it broke down, there was Price. He turned three top-quality chances from Canucks sniper Brock Boeser aside and made other hard saves on Boeser’s teammates look easy.

An overaggressive play from the Canadiens in the neutral zone left Adam Gaudette some room with Demko on the bench and the Canucks skating 6-on-5. The Vancouver sniper wired a slap shot from inside the circle that clanked off the far post and went in to tie the game 1-1 with 41 seconds to play.

Ducharme called it “the perfect shot from where he shot it.”

“The percentage of that puck going in is not really high, but it did,” he added.

But the coach also said this about how Montreal played the game: “I don’t think we gave them much tonight…

“Without the puck, the way we’re coming back and applying pressure, forcing plays and creating turnovers, we’re doing a good job. So a lot of good things…

“We’ll be back on Wednesday and making sure we take what we’ve done in the last four-five games and we keep making it better.”

The Canadiens hadn’t played as well since a 5-3 win over the Canucks at the Bell Centre on Feb. 2.

In truth, they played better in this one, and did so against a Vancouver team that has been much better of late. And if they play as well against the Canucks in less 48 hours, they’ll walk away winners.



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