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Canadiens Notebook: Habs' early success comes from strong team game

MONTREAL, QUE.: JANUARY 27, 2021 -- Brendan Gallagher tips a shot in front of Charlie Lindgren during Montreal Canadiens practice at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard on Wednesday January 27, 2021.  (John Mahoney} / MONTREAL GAZETTE) ORG XMIT: 65667 - 7718
MONTREAL, QUE.: JANUARY 27, 2021 -- Brendan Gallagher tips a shot in front of Charlie Lindgren during Montreal Canadiens practice at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard on Wednesday January 27, 2021. (John Mahoney} / MONTREAL GAZETTE) ORG XMIT: 65667 - 7718

The recipe for the Canadiens’ early success this season is pretty simple — they have better players and they have played very well as a team.

“When you say you’ve played well, we’ve been able to lean on everybody,” coach Claude Julien said after practice Wednesday at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. “There hasn’t been much, I guess, negative to say about individuals, per se, because everybody’s brought something to the table and everybody’s contributed in all different ways. So I think it’s really been what people seem to look at our team as is we’re a team. We’re not sitting here saying we got a bunch of superstars. We just got a bunch of good players who like to play a team game and everybody seems to be willing to bring what they bring best to the table. This has helped us get a good start.

“Having said that, we’re at home now and we got a bit of a homestead and we just got to start thinking about building, I guess, a reputation of being a good home team as well as we were a good road team so far.”

The Canadiens started the season with six straight road games and posted an impressive 4-0-2 record. Their next five games will be at the Bell Centre, starting Thursday night against the Calgary Flames (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

Last season, the Canadiens had a 17-14-3 record on the road, but were 14-17-6 at home.

“We kind of need to put that aside and really focus on maybe getting a good start tomorrow and creating a good home record this year,” Julien said. “It was hard to pinpoint what it was last year … it really was. We seemed to be a better team on the road than we were at home. So this year we hope to be able to do both — be good on the road and be good at home.”

One thing the Canadiens will definitely need to improve at home is their power play. Last season, the Canadiens had the third-best power play in the NHL on the road, clicking at 24.7 per cent. They ranked 31st (dead last) on the power play at home with a 12.4 per cent success rate.

Josh Anderson, one of seven new players on the Canadiens this season, said starting out on the road probably helped the team.

“Any time you get to go on the road at the beginning of the year I think it’s just good to get to know the guys a little bit better, especially when you’re a new guy and you’re not seeing the guys that much away from the rink,” he said. “But starting out on the road you could see from our record I think it just helped. We were bonding and everything like that and we got closer together. I think we brought that onto the ice and we’re ready to get back going here at home.”

Anderson has been impressed by the Canadiens’ depth and confidence.

“Just coming in from training camp and Game 1 we knew that we had confidence in this team,” he said. “Big believer. We brought that onto the ice and we’ve had success. So I think we just got to stay humble right now. We’re still early, it’s only six games. We got a long year ahead of us. So just keep playing hard and taking every game pretty business-like. We got to to out there tomorrow and try to accomplish the same thing.”

Could empty Bell Centre help?

You have to wonder if having no fans in the Bell Centre might help the Canadiens on the power play since they won’t have more than 20,000 people constantly screaming “shoot!” when they have the man advantage. And as much as the Canadiens can feed off the home crowd and the atmosphere at a packed Bell Centre, so do opposing teams who get fired up to play in Montreal.

“To be honest with you, I don’t know,” Julien said when asked if an empty arena could be an advantage. “This will be our first game in this building with no fans. We were in the bubble in Toronto for the playoffs, we’ve been on the road ever since. It’s a new territory for us as well. For me to answer that would be just predicting without really knowing. I hope it takes a little bit of the juice out of the other team. For us, I just hope that we keep going on the same track that we’ve started on since the beginning of the year.

“We wish they could be there,” Julien added about the fans. “I think the feeling’s mutual. As much as they’d love to be in the rink we’d love to have them there as well. But, you know what, we’re going through a COVID protocol right now that we have to respect and that’s everybody. We’re in a province here that has an 8 o’clock curfew and we need to respect that if we want to make things better along the way. So it’s just about abiding by the rules and by the laws that are put into place right now and you do the best you can with what you’re given. So we’re doing the best we can right now with the fact that we’re able to do our jobs. Unfortunately, we have to do our jobs without our fans who we’d love to see in our building. So hopefully sooner than later we’ll see them back at the Bell Centre.”

Armia doesn’t skate

Joel Armia skated by himself after the Canadiens practised Tuesday at the Bell Centre, but he didn’t skate on Wednesday in Brossard. Armia suffered a concussion when he was hit with a vicious check by Vancouver defenceman Tyler Myers in a 7-3 win over the Canucks last Thursday.

Julien said he couldn’t provide any more information on Armia other than to say he continues to go through the concussion protocol. The coach added that he isn’t going to provide daily updates on Armia’s condition and that the training staff would tell him know when the forward is ready to go back on the ice with his teammates.

Paul Byron got lucky in the same game last Thursday when he was hit in the foot by a Shea Weber slapshot.

“If feels pretty good,” Byron said after practice Wednesday. “It’s been almost a week. It’s definitely getting better. Definitely good I got hit there and not somewhere else. It could have done a lot worse damage, that’s for sure.”

The kids are all right

The Canadiens are counting heavily on young centres Nick Suzuki and Jesperi Kotkaniemi and so far they have been able to carry the load.

Suzuki has a six-game point streak to start the season with 2-4-6 totals and is plus-1, while Kotkaniemi has 1-2-3 totals and is plus-4. Suzuki is winning 44 per cent of his faceoffs, while Kotkaniemi is winning 47.5 per cent of his.

Suzuki was minus-15 last season, while Kotkaniemi was minus-11.

“Obviously, he’s gaining confidence every day,” linemate Anderson said about Suzuki. “You can see him playing with confidence. He’s just such a good two-way centreman. He’s going to be dangerous in this league for a long time. He’s a smart kid and he’s got a lot of hockey sense in him.”

Said Byron about Kotkaniemi: “I think his maturity on the ice, his game, his comfort level I think has definitely grown. I mean, it’s natural. He’s more confident, he’s stronger, he’s getting older, more comfortable in the league. he’s getting better on faceoffs. It’s nice to see his game grow, for sure, from when he was 18 years old. You can just see each day getting more comfortable in his body, how to push guys off, how to use his strength, his leverage, his height. So it’s a lot of fun watching him develop. He’s a great young hockey player and he’s still got lots of room to grow and develop.”

Family affair

While the Canadiens are following the NHL’s COVID-19 protocols closely, their families have to continue living their lives and obviously risk exposure to the virus like everyone else.

Byron and his wife have a young son and daughter and live on the South Shore.

“Right now with the rules the way it is it’s pretty easy to stay safe,” he said. “My kids are going to school. Obviously, the exposures there are probably the highest risk for our family. Both my kids are wearing masks at school. They’re not really supposed to play with any other kids outside of who’s in their class. They’re getting tested once a week. Everybody knows that that’s kind of the risk any time you leave the building and any time you go somewhere else you have a chance at exposure somewhere else. But just the way the laws are, the rules, the community I live in I think everyone does a pretty good job of following the rules. Staying six feet away from each other, everyone’s wearing masks, washing hands.

“It’s super important that everyone does their part to help limit the spread,” Byron added. “We’ll see how the year progresses with that. But right now I’m pretty confident in my kids, my wife. I know they’re doing a lot of sacrifice to stay home and do what they can to help out the team and help out the NHL. But at the end of the day, they don’t really have all that much to do so it’s been fairly easy for them. I’m very lucky to have a great wife and kids that are understanding and they’re willing to make that sacrifice for us.”

The lines

Here’s how the forward lines and defence pairings looked at practice Wednesday:

Tatar – Danault – Gallagher
Drouin – Suzuki – Anderson
Toffoli – Kotkaniemi – Perry
Byron – Evans – Lehkonen
Frolik – Poehling

Chiarot – Weber
Edmundson – Petry
Kulak – Romanov
Mete – Fleury

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What’s next?

The Canadiens play the first of two straight games against the Flames Thursday night at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM). The teams will meet again on Saturday night (7 p.m., CBC, CITY, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

Next week, the Canadiens will play the Vancouver Canucks Monday and Tuesday at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM), followed by a visit from the Ottawa Senators on Thursday (TSN2, TSN5, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM). The Canadiens and Senators will then meet again next Saturday afternoon in Ottawa (1 p.m., TSN2, TSN5, RDS, TSN 690 Radio).

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