MONTREAL — It was after the Montreal Canadiens had scored three goals in less than five minutes, after they had recorded 33 shots in two periods, that one Calgary Flames executive was shaking his head on the elevator ride down to ice level.
“Their speed is on another level,” he said.
Through eight games, and following a 3-2 win over the Flames on Tuesday, that is the identity the Canadiens have built early on in this season. It has given them a 5-1-2 start and put rivals on notice.
They come at you in waves, forcing turnovers in all three zones, pushing the pace incrementally and then exponentially as the game rolls on.
“It’s a lot of fun to play this way,” said Canadiens forward Johnny Drouin, who came out on top in the matchup against Johnny ‘Hockey’ Gaudreau with a goal, an assist and a nomination as the game’s first star.
It’s fun to watch, too.
The Canadiens may not have the talent of the team playing down the 401 highway, they may not have the muscle their Western opponents in Tuesday’s game possess, but they are a determined group that plays to its strength.
That on its own is already a considerable departure from what we saw from them as they fell pitifully to a 28th-place finish in last year’s standings. The caveat being that it’s still early to make any bold proclamations about who they are.
“I’m happy with the way we’re playing, with the way things are going, but I’m certainly not satisfied,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “I don’t think I’m going to stand here and say, ‘Hey, we’ve got an identity.’ We’re going to build it and sometimes it takes a whole year before you get to that point or at least half a season before teams say that. But the thing is, we’ve got to be able to sustain that, that style of game and that kind of play, and that’s why it’s a work in progress.”
There are some aspects of Montreal’s game that certainly need refinement — they’re currently ranked 17th on the penalty kill and 17th on the power play — but they seem entirely committed to that process.
A game ago, the Canadiens gave up leads of 2-0 and 3-1 in an overtime loss to the Ottawa Senators. They had a horror-show second period where they were out-shot 11-4 and out-scored 2-0, and they weren’t much better in the third and in overtime.
But they came to the rink on Monday and pushed through a very intense practice and they came to the rink on Tuesday ready to play. Montreal out-shot Calgary 12-7 and out-chanced them by a wide margin, but they trailed 1-0 after a period.
Instead of being discouraged by the opportunities lost, they doubled down on their efforts in the second period. Jeff Petry started the party with a power play goal at 15:50, then he assisted on Brendan Gallagher’s fifth goal of the season less than two minutes later.
And with 49 seconds left in the frame, Canadiens defenceman Xavier Ouellet made a good read at the offensive blue line, kept the puck in, and then he passed it over to Drouin for the winning goal.
“We’re playing as a team that’s not afraid to make mistakes and [Ouellet’s] play was a perfect example of that,” said Drouin.
That doesn’t mean the Canadiens went all out to put the game away, but it would be mischaracterizing things to say they sat back.
Instead Montreal limited the risks and clamped down in the neutral zone, disrupting the Flames’ flow considerably and forcing them into several turnovers.
They also came up with a huge penalty kill with just under six minutes remaining.
All along, the home side’s speed was featured, and never more so than in the final minutes of the game, with Calgary chasing down a one-goal deficit.
Flames goaltender David Rittich, who was sensational on Tuesday, was trying to get out of his net with a little more than 120 seconds to play, but the Canadiens wouldn’t allow the Flames to get the puck past the centre-ice line.
Max Domi’s effort to keep the puck hemmed in Calgary’s end for over a minute as the clock ticked down bellied the attention to detail the Canadiens played with all game.
As a result, they took matters out of goaltender Carey Price’s hands on a night where he had a shot at recording his 289th win to tie Patrick Roy for second place on the Canadiens’ all-time wins list.
“Coming off a tough loss we said no matter what, we’re not going to lose two in a row,” said Domi. “That’s what good teams do, we came out and executed and obviously that was a good win.”
There’s no debating that last part of the sentence.
We can all argue about whether or not the Canadiens are a good team, though.
On paper, they shouldn’t be as good as they have shown through the early part of this season. And how they respond to the first bout of adversity they face — which is unquestionably on its way at some point in the near future — will tell us much about who they really are.
But the Canadiens are without question a fast team, and the Flames — like the Toronto Maple Leafs, Pittsburgh Penguins, Los Angeles Kings, Detroit Red Wings, St. Louis Blues and Senators before them — learned that.