When the Montreal Canadiens entered Game 50 Sunday, they had not won two games in a row during the entire season.
The Canadiens lined up to faced the Islanders in New York on Sunday. And Montreal got it done. It came down to a shootout. The final tally: Canadiens 3, Islanders 2.
The turnaround for Cole Caufield was stunning. In power plays earlier this season, Caufield couldn’t even get a pass. Jeff Petry would look at him and make a a 60-foot wrist shot before choosing to pass to Caufield.
Fast forward to the fifth game under new head coach, Martin St. Louis, and the entire power play seemed to be revolve around Caufield. It isn’t as if they are pushing it to him when he is unprepared or not open. The power play now goes through Caufield.
He is open. He is ready. He is skating. He wants the puck. He is delivering results.
Caufield looks like the player that won the Hobey Baker Award as college hockey’s top player. He already has four goals in his last five games after getting only one goal before that — all season long. In this game he got an assist, and then a shootout tally.
It is remarkable what a coach having a little bit of faith can mean to a player. It also doesn’t hurt that the head coach appears to be an outstanding teacher, and just as good a motivator.
This does not look like the same team that played under Dominique Ducharme. They are playing faster paced hockey and taking the game to their opposition.
Only two weeks ago, the Canadiens were allowing 50 shots every game. They went through Dallas, Vegas, and Denver looking embarassingly bad. They could barely get the puck out of their own zone. The goalies were horrific, but 50-shot fatigue can do that to a keeper.
Now, under St. Louis, the Canadiens outshooting the opposition is just as likely.
It’s too early to make definitive statements, obviously, but the transformational play under this new head coach cannot be ignored.
It isn’t just Caufield who looks better. Jeff Petry seems to be the former version of himself. Josh Anderson looks very engaged. Alexander Romanov looks relaxed and unafraid of making an error. Nick Suzuki has added an extra layer of freedom to his play. Corey Schueneman has gone from just another fill-in, to a player looking like an NHL career can be his. Rem Pitlick was used in the shootout, which seemed dubious, but then Pitlick made the move of the year, leaving the goalie doing the 50-metre butterfly.
It’s easy to see the transformations in ice times as well. Caufied has gone from barely used to second highest used, behind Suzuki only among the forwards. Joel Armia has gone from Mr. Everything to missing shifts the other night.
And how about the overtime usage by the new head coach. Claude Julien and Ducharme always looked to be preserving that one point in the standings, while St. Louis showed he is about getting the extra point, putting out Caufield, Suzuki and Petry as first choices in extra time.
There is so much to appreciate right now about the Canadiens. They’re still not world champs of course, but at least they’re not beating themselves so much — with the head coach having some ideas on how to improve the dynamics.
It’s interesting as well to hear St. Louis say that he has a lot of ideas, but can’t deliver them all at once, so players learn and absorb more effectively. You would almost think he has an education degree the way he communicates his message.
It’s going to be exciting and interesting to see how this progresses. It would be shocking if St. Louis didn’t return next September. His start has been that impressive. This could be the beginning of a love affair.
The Canadiens have a talent limitation that is only going to get worse when they trade away veterans. As a result, this won’t be perfect the rest of this season, far from it, but it really appears that the new head coach can get a lot out of what he has.
Martin St. Louis as the bench boss in his first five games has been outstanding. It was a gamble to hire a coach without experience, but if you are going to gamble, then do it with nothing to lose, and much to gain.
So far there have been nothing but gains for St. Louis. Sure, there’s the lack of talent. However, the players are engaged. They are pressing offensively. There are stretch passes. They’re pinching at the blue line. Defenceman are leading rushes. There are smiles on the bench and attitude on the ice.
It all adds up to much more entertainment, so on a day that Montreal got its first two-game winning streak of the season, there’s no negativity to report here.
It was interesting to note in this one that Ben Chiarot played on the right side. Chiarot is a left handed shot, and the Canadiens have mostly had him on the left. He was mostly on the right side in Winnipeg. So why move him back to the right?
The unrestricted free agent will get moved before the trading deadline in March. This could be that a prospective club interested in his services, asking that Chiarot play on the right to see how comfortable he looks. The latest rumour is that the St. Louis Blues are interested. The rumour before that was the New York Rangers were interested. The total amount of teams interested seems to be around ten.
If someone has made a request for Chiarot to play on the right, then it must be serious.
However, this might just be that Martin St. Louis thinks Chiarot could be a better player on the right side. Certainly, we are already seeing that St. Louis thinks outside of the box. The new head coach has Cole Caufield playing on the left side for the first time in his career. The right handed shot has responded with four goals in his last five games.
Caufield gets a better look at the net on his off wing when he fires a shot and on a rush doesn’t have to receive the pass across his body. Those are positives on offence, and in Martin’s mind, those positives outweigh the more difficult defensive moment of trying to take a pass off the half wall from his defenceman to get the puck out of his own zone.
Just a philosophy from St. Louis. That getting a scorer going forward is more important than a scorer great on defence. By extension, it might be that St. Louis likes Chiarot on the right, or it might be that a trade is coming. We shall know for sure with the passage of time.