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Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens lose to Washington Capitals in debut of Martin St. Louis

The Martin St. Louis experiment started Thursday night at the Bell Centre as the Montreal Canadiens hosted the Washington Capitals. It was quite the challenge for the new head coach as certainly none of what he wants to implement could have been truly felt after an optional morning skate.

The Capitals rolled to a 5-2 win, but there were moments to enjoy and see the difference already.

Certainly, the shot total favouring Montreal 44-23 told an important story.

Wilde Horses 

Though the score was what was expected, it did feel as if the message from the new head coach this morning, part of an inspiring 10-minute speech, was learned. It feels like St. Louis told his players to try their best moves and let their creativity flow like they recently have not.

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This contest saw Cole Caufield make some sharp offensive moves that he had not been bold enough to try for a long time. In the first, Alexander Romanov pinched in and rung a shot off the post. All night, Nick Suzuki was trying to be creative like he was at the all-star game. In the opening frame, Ryan Poehling took it hard to the net, trying to execute a difficult but exciting move.

St. Louis indicated that he wanted his players to have some fun, and that can mean not being constrained by a system so rigid that the players forgot how they made it to the NHL — because they could be talented and creative.

It’s the type of freedom that allowed Caufield to try a backhand up high from a tough angle in close to score his second goal of the season. It is likely a coincidence that he breaks his long drought in the first game with the new head coach, but perhaps it is not. Perhaps a weight off Caufield’s shoulders was lifted and just that lighter feeling helped enough. These things one can’t know.

Read more: Montreal Canadiens fire Dominique Ducharme, name Martin St-Louis interim head coach

There was a moment in the contest where St. Louis was instructing Caufield at the bench while they both looked at an iPad. Caufield’s head was bobbing up and down with enthusiasm as the new head coach had his hand on his shoulder and his head close to Caufield to help communicate through his N95 mask.

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It was just a moment, but it said so much. The words were appreciated and made sense to Caufield.  It is hard to remember even a single moment all season that Dominique Ducharme instructed his players such as this. It must have felt so good for Caufield to receive direction from one of the greatest players in league history. His face sure looked pleased.

The Canadiens cannot let this Hobey Baker Trophy winner as the top player in college hockey simply languish into mediocrity, as if he is supposed to develop all by himself. Caufield is one of the greatest American college players in history, and that has to translate into a good pro career. It must. It’s not acceptable that he only is scolded for missing a defensive assignment while not helping him to develop his offensive instincts at the NHL level.

This was a night to witness some positive change in this area thanks to St. Louis. May it continue.

For the next 35 games under St. Louis, Canadiens management is going to see who wants to be in Montreal. Hard-working performances like that from Josh Anderson will be noted. He’s showing that he has pride, and that these losses are not acceptable. Anderson saying that Tuesday night was embarassing probably was a message that the management team knew that they had to accept and act on.

It’s going to take time, but if the players feel free to create and play with pride, then it will be moving in the right direction.

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Wilde Goats 

With all of that positivity said, if a new coach — or any coach — cannot get a save, he cannot win the game. The Canadiens have so many goalies injured that they are using a goalie simply not ready for the show yet. Cayden Primeau is not ready for this moment, and it’s got to be hurting his long-term development to feel so helpless at the NHL level.

Primeau allowed four goals on 15 shots. That’s not even a .750 percentage. Carey Price on 15 shots has usually let in one and instead of a 4-1 disgrace, it’s tied.

The Canadiens are getting around .840 goaltending in their last 10 games. You can put some of the best players in the world in front of that .840 number and these players are not going to win the game.

Carey Price made a lot of people look good for a long time. Without him, the bandages have come off and they have revealed massive hemorrhaging.

That’s not to suggest the club would be off to the playoffs with Price’s .935 goaltending, but they would definitely be a competitive club.

Price — and Jake Allen, for that matter — can’t return soon enough. The Canadiens will then be able to show exactly where they stand in terms of how deep this rebuild should be.

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Click to play video: 'Carey Price’s future with Montreal Canadiens still on ice' Carey Price’s future with Montreal Canadiens still on ice
Carey Price’s future with Montreal Canadiens still on ice – Jan 31, 2022

Wide Cards

Martin St. Louis has overachieved his entire life. He was too small for the pros, they said. He didn’t even get drafted. His career was supposed to end at the University of Vermont, but success with the Catamounts was just a stepping stone to greatness at the highest levels. St. Louis overachieved so much that he was a Stanley Cup champion and a league MVP.

Every time they told him that he couldn’t, he could. So let him try to overachieve once again behind the Canadiens’ bench as head coach. Overachieving seems to be his mantra. Surprising seems to be his thing.

Critics suggest that it is irresponsible to choose a coach with absolutely no experience. St. Louis has not been a head coach in the minors, nor in the juniors. He has not even been an assistant. However, if you are going to try someone without experience once, this is the season to do it.

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There is no downside for the Canadiens to this move. If they were vying for a cup or a playoff spot, then it would be quite the gamble considering what could be lost. In this season, though, there is nothing to be lost that hasn’t been already and much to be gained.

The Canadiens might as well take a gamble and see if they have a natural at this job. St. Louis sure talked a good game at the morning news conference to meet Montreal hockey fans.

St. Louis didn’t say a wrong word. He was full of confidence. His message resonated with everyone. He had everyone in Habs Nation thrilled by the end of it. Word is he had the players thrilled, as well. Executive vice-president Jeff Gorton said that St. Louis gave a 10-minute speech to the players this morning that gave Gorton goosebumps.

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In a time when everyone is sick of dull and defensive hockey in Montreal, St. Louis spoke of letting the players have fun again. In a time when everyone is frustrated watching players locked into a confusing system, the new coach spoke of letting players enjoy their instincts and their talents.

In a time when everyone is sad to see young talent like Cole Caufield struggle, we now get to see one of the game’s great creative players in St. Louis pass on a new message to the youth on the team.

All of these reasons make it exciting to imagine the rest of this lost season. It will be fun to see the ice times as the season continues. It will be fun to see the club become more creative, exciting and offensive.

Read more: Call of the Wilde: Montreal Canadiens return to play, get blown out by New Jersey Devils 7-1

And if St. Louis doesn’t enjoy the ride for the next three months, and if the players don’t improve, then, in this lost season, no harm was done. We move on.

Here’s the bottom line: It is next to impossible to see a downside here. It’s hard to imagine the downside considering the club has won only two of its last 22 games and no one seemed to be improving at all.

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At the same time, it is exciting to imagine the upside coming to fruition with Caufield finding his instincts again, and Suzuki learning from one of the all-time best. All the forwards hearing one of the game’s greats passing on his wisdom; all of the defenders playing with some instinct again and not a system that had them mostly confused.

New general manager Kent Hughes promised that he wanted to create a more exciting and offensive club in the future. This is his promise coming to pass with this, his first major move.

It may not work, but in hiring Martin St. Louis, we get to see if there is something more exciting out there.

There’s something to look forward to today, and in this the worst season in Canadiens history, that’s saying something important.

Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.

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