The table was set on September 20, very early in the Montreal Canadiens’ pre-season. Head coach Martin St-Louis went to the podium and explained why this season will be different.
“We’re farther ahead,” he said. “Last year we were like a baby. What you ask of a baby and what you ask a boy of seven or eight years old is different. The expectations are different. You need to take care of the baby. An older child is able to take on some responsibilities, whether it is brushing their teeth or making their bed. Now we’re in a different stage.”
St-Louis has often made metaphors comparing a rebuilding, developing Canadiens team to a child. As the father of a two-year-old, I can relate. As frustrated as you are at your two-year-old doing something they shouldn’t do, yelling at them won’t make any difference. You see them doing it, and you simply have to try to calm yourself down and try to explain even though it’s probably futile.
Many coaches have probably yelled themselves hoarse trying to get a young team to play the right way. St-Louis, as the father of three now-teenage boys, knew better. It’s a process, and the stage St-Louis previewed on September 20 is playing itself out in reality.
Also in the pre-season, he had mentioned the team wasn’t really focusing on special teams last year, instead trying to teach the game at five-on-five. After starting the season 1/11 (9.1%) on the power play through their first three games, the team has gone 5/18 (27.8%) since with at least one power play goal in each game. Their season-long percentage of 20.7% is 14th in the NHL and actually above the league-average at 20.2%.
The power play, in particular, made the most of their opportunities against the Columbus Blue Jackets on Thursday night and was instrumental in their comeback win. For once, it was the power play that kept them close in a game that they were struggling in at five-on-five.
(As an aside, the penalty kill is still a problem… At 73%, they sit 25th in the league and have only killed 50% of their penalties in the last two games.)
It’s not only the power play that has been a priority. There is an internal accountability that was not there last season. The coach said that Nick Suzuki could be better, not a harsh (or incorrect) assessment, but one that wasn’t made in the past. St-Louis calling out the team between the first and second period of Thursday’s game was another example.
The team responded, reversing a 2-0 deficit, and taking over the game’s shot numbers.
There is obviously still a long way to go, but the team is sitting at 4-2-1 through seven games, and this despite some poor performances against the Minnesota Wild and New Jersey Devils which cloud the perception of what has been a solid start.
You can start to see, however, the things that will make this Canadiens team into a playoff contender. Slowly but surely, wins are increasing. So too, are internal expectations and accountability and they go hand-in-hand.