Canadiens hope to emulate Canucks and they gave them a lesson in how to do it

Canucks beat Canadiens

VANCOUVER — Montreal Canadiens defenceman Mike Matheson was talking after practice here Wednesday about how close his team has been to beating some pretty tough opponents of late — including a 3-2 loss in overtime to the Edmonton Oilers one night earlier — and how that is giving them hope the growth happening with this team is tangible proof of brighter days to come.

And he used their upcoming opponents, the Vancouver Canucks, as an example to follow, a way of manufacturing that hope.

“We lead the league in one-goal games, and it’s frustrating, for sure,” Matheson said. “I think it’s a good sign of things to come, kind of similar to Vancouver where they’ve been able to turn things around very quickly and have come out of nowhere this year and have had an incredible year.

“So I think it’s encouraging, but definitely still very frustrating as a competitor to invest so much into each game and come up short.”

The Canadiens have played 39 one-goal games this season and lost 23 of them, 11 of those in regulation time and 12 in overtime or a shootout, a game situation assistant coach Trevor Letowski referred to Wednesday as a coin flip, and yet the Canadiens have only won 10 times in overtime or a shootout.

But their game against the Canucks on Thursday was not a coin flip or even a one-goal game. It was a puck-pressure clinic from the Canucks, playing a heavy, suffocating style that the Canadiens knew very well was coming, but could do nothing to counter in a 4-1 loss that never felt close.

“There’s just not a lot of space against that team,” Letowski said after the game. “Pretty consistent the way they play, they just kept getting pucks in behind us.

“We kind of knew it was coming, but to feel it out there, it’s a good team. They played well.”

So, is there anything to what Matheson was saying? That the Canadiens could somehow use their end of the season, the competitive games they’ve played against high-level competition of late — this loss to the Canucks notwithstanding — as some sort of indicator or springboard for next season?

From a pure talent perspective, it’s difficult to see any sort of correlation. The Canucks already had an elite talent at forward in Elias Pettersson, an elite talent on defence in Quinn Hughes and an elite goalie in Thatcher Demko. While a jump like this might not have been reasonable for them to believe at this time last year, they had conerstone pieces in place to make that possibility a bit more plausible.

But there was something more meaningful that happened last season for the Canucks, something the Canadiens can in fact draw some lessons from and use over the final stretch to create that same belief that better days are ahead.

From March 1 to the end of last season, the Canucks went 14-6-2, which is a prety high bar for this Canadiens team to reach considering they’ve only won two games in March so far. Still, if the Canadiens take pride in their ability to compete with some of the league’s best, there’s something to be drawn from that fact alone.

“We put in a lot of work the second half of the year last year, after the player break, there were some big adjustments to be made, but guys came in and put in the work to turn things around. I think we did what we needed to do at the end of the year last year,” Canucks defenceman Tyler Myers said Thursday morning. “But coming into this year, we wanted to prove it wasn’t just a fluke, and it wasn’t just because we were in the position we were in not playing for much.”

That’s one thing, and the Canadiens can still reel off some wins between now and the end of the season to create that sense of pride and accomplishment the Canucks felt with how they finished last season.

But there was something else that was key to the Canucks turnaround, and that was anger, frustration, as Matheson mentioned, of what had been going on in Vancouver for too long.

“I think everyone was really upset with the direction we were going in; it was kind of a miserable couple of years there,” Canucks captain Quinn Hughes said Thursday morning. “I think the group just matured in the sense we weren’t going to allow the losing to continue. I think everyone had a really strong summer and came to camp a month early and was ready to compete and ready to play, and that’s why you saw us start 12-2 or whatever it was.”

If you wanted to see a player who was upset Thursday night, it was Juraj Slafkovský. The Canadiens’ lone goal-scorer in that game was seething at his locker, breathing heavily and doing everything in his power not to spout off. The first question he fielded wasn’t even a question, it was an observation, that he seemed upset.

“Yeah, obviously,” he said.

He was not happy with what the Canucks had just done to him, with how impotent the Canadiens were when faced with what the Canucks were doing to them, even if they knew it was coming. Remembering that feeling will serve him well. The Canucks remembered that feeling.

But they also had a new coach last season, one that established what the Canucks needed over the summer to play this way in March.

“Having a coaching staff that we had for three months and understanding what they expected from us was massive,” Hughes said. “But also a maturity standpoint, where we grew.”

The needs of Rick Tocchet’s coaching staff were quite evident in this game. To play the way the Canucks play at this point of the season is physically demanding, and is practically impossible if conditioning is not the number one priority. The Canucks players realized that last season, and prepared over the offseason in kind, knowing how high their conditioning would need to be to play the way Tocchet wanted them to play this deep into the season.

And Tocchet saw those signs at the end of last season.

“I think the buy in,” he said. “Sometimes as a coach you’re preaching stuff, or the coaching staff and the organization, and the guys bought it. I think proof’s in the pudding, coming in better shape, training camp’s important, systems stuff, self-assessment, I think those guys really took that to heart and came into camp with those qualities and working on those qualities. But I think it’s an organizational attitude.”

The organizational attitude of the Canucks was evident at last season’s trade deadline when they used the first-round pick they got by trading away Bo Horvat — a seller move — to acquire defenceman Filip Hronek. It didn’t make sense at the time. In fact, it was widely panned as completely counterintuitive. But it was an example of organizational attitude.

For the Canadiens, the organizational attitude is similar in the sense they want to make a jump next season. Perhaps the jump the Canucks have made is not realistic, but no one outside of the Canucks organization thought the jump they have made was realistic, either. They believed, and that Hronek trade was proof of that.

The Canadiens plan to be aggressive this offseason. They have a logjam of young defencemen that can serve to address certain needs at forward. They have a war chest of draft picks that can serve the same purpose. General manager Kent Hughes continuously says if there is any way to accelerate the process of the Canadiens building a contending team, they will do it, and they have the assets to do so.

But Tocchet’s point of an organizational attitude is important here. Canadiens management needs to show their players they have that attitude. And the players need to show them they are prepared to do what it takes this offseason to make a turnaround like the one the Canucks have had possible.

The comparison is not perfect, the Canadiens don’t have what the Canucks had last season, and perhaps Matheson’s vision of using the competitive hockey they have played against top competition over the last 10 games as some sort of similar springboard has some merit.

But it wasn’t that easy for the Canucks. There was a serious commitment to their identity as a team and an even more serious commitment to what was necessary over the offseason to make something like this possible with a strong start to the season.

The Canucks gave the Canadiens a lesson in high-pressure hockey Thursday night, but more generally, the lesson the Canadiens should take from the Canucks is how important a focused offseason and an emphasis on training camp and banking points right from the start of the season can jumpstart an unexpectedly successful season.

But Nick Suzuki has taken a step this season. Slafkovský has taken a massive step, and the confidence he has gained this season will help him enormously next season. Cole Caufield will not shoot 7.6 percent ever again as long as he lives. Kirby Dach is not here, even if we still don’t know what he could become. There are reasons to believe a Canucks-like jump is possible. It is up to the Canadiens to make it happen, and they can lay the groundwork for that starting right now.

(Photo of Canucks celebrating a goal against the Canadiens: Derek Cain/Getty Images)

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