MONTREAL — At this point, Martin St. Louis might regret using the word.
The Canadiens faced the Vegas Golden Knights on the road on Oct. 30 and played what St. Louis called their best game since he took over as coach. They lost the game 3-2 in a shootout, but established what St. Louis considered to be a new standard for how well the Canadiens can play.
“And that’s a group decision, it’s not the coach that’s raising the standard,” St. Louis said that night. “You can try to point them in a direction, but it’s up to them, and that’s what they did tonight.”
The Cambridge Dictionary has a very simple definition for the word standard: A level of quality.
Since St. Louis used that word to describe his team in Las Vegas, the Canadiens have played eight games and collected four points, 30th in the NHL in points percentage over that span. At five-on-five, they are 27th in the NHL in goals for percentage (41.94) and 22nd in the NHL in expected goals for percentage (47.06) since that game in Las Vegas. Those numbers include the Canadiens’ 6-5 loss to the Golden Knights at home on Thursday, one in which they generated as many five-on-five high-danger scoring chances — five — as William Karlsson did alone, according to Natural Stat Trick.
They were thoroughly outplayed by the defending Stanley Cup champs and were nowhere even close to the apparent standard they had established the last time they faced them. The Canadiens’ best player was easily goalie Cayden Primeau, and he allowed six goals.
“The game in Vegas, we deserved better,” St. Louis said, “and today we deserved what we got.”
So, what is the real standard for this Canadiens team? Because that game in the Nevada desert is looking more and more like a mirage at this point. But there are certain things St. Louis often says are non-negotiable, and the Canadiens, well, they’re negotiating.
“We played really well in Vegas and felt we should have won that one,” forward Jake Evans said. “When we play the way we did tonight, it’s definitely a humbling experience and makes you realize how much further you have to go and how well you have to play to beat them.”
The Golden Knights were all over the Canadiens right from puck drop. It seemed overwhelming.
“They were taking away our space everywhere, on the forecheck, in the neutral zone,” defenceman Johnathan Kovacevic said. “Obviously our goal is to make plays, make clean exits, but they were right on us. It was hard to advance pucks and they would kind of gain territory that way and they would have a quick counterstrike.
“Yeah, it was a tough game.”
Despite that, the Canadiens were in a position to win the game in the third period because of Primeau, who allowed them to escape the first period leading 2-0 despite, as captain Nick Suzuki said, playing so poorly they could have been trailing 4-0. While the team’s standard has dropped, Primeau’s has not, despite getting sporadic action and being in a situation where momentum is difficult to build.
Primeau stopped all 18 shots he faced in the first period.
“I was feeling good,” he said. “I tried not to change the way I was playing. Throughout the whole game, I felt even better than I did in the Detroit game. I tried not to get too high. I knew that they were going to give a push. It’s hockey, it’s a fast game, things change in an instant, so I was just trying to be ready.”
Fast forward to the third period, and because of Primeau, the Canadiens are in a position to head to at least head to overtime when this happens.
Gallagher gives the refs a buffet of options for penalty calls on this play. pic.twitter.com/mKUgmR6bik
— Marc Dumont (@MarcPDumont) November 17, 2023
It was the second game in a row in which Brendan Gallagher was called for a late penalty with the game on the line. On Tuesday, it was definitely an iffy tripping call, and Gallagher was in the locker room to express his outrage over the neutral-zone ref making that call when the ref who was closest to the play decided to let it go.
“Three minutes to go, they’ve got to get the call right. I know the other ref saw it, for sure he did, he’s right there, he’s got a better view,” Gallagher said Tuesday. “It just can’t happen.”
Gallagher was not in the room to talk about this call, however. It was the third time this season Gallagher has been in the penalty box with the game on the line late in the third period. On Oct. 26 against the Columbus Blue Jackets, with the game tied 3-3, Gallagher took a high-sticking penalty at 19:05 of the third. The Canadiens eventually won that game in overtime. There was the tripping call against Calgary on Tuesday, and there was also a hooking call in the third period that gave the Boston Bruins an extended five-on-three power play with the Canadiens up 2-1.
Then there was this, a no-doubter double-minor for high-sticking with less than three minutes left in a tie game. Jack Eichel scored during the first minor, Mark Stone scored during the second, game over.
Suzuki defended Gallagher because he was trying to nullify a legitimate scoring chance for Pavel Dorofeyev when he caught him in the mouth with his stick before hooking him as well.
“The guy probably could have scored easily, desperation play, trying to save a goal, unlucky he got him up high,” Suzuki said. “But Gally knows what he’s doing. It’s not a dumb penalty, he’s just trying to save a goal.”
St. Louis, however, did not defend Gallagher.
“Yeah, it can’t happen,” St. Louis said. “It can’t happen.”
Again, standards. When one of the team’s leaders is taking undisciplined penalties at inopportune moments, they are difficult to maintain.
But another opportunity awaits for this team to set a benchmark.
The one time the Canadiens have met the standard they set in Las Vegas was in that game against the Bruins, one they won in overtime. And now, it couldn’t be more appropriate that they are heading to Boston to face the Bruins on Saturday.
Because it will provide an opportunity to prove that the disparity in their play in two games against the defending Stanley Cup champions is not their new standard.
(Photo of Mark Stone: Minas Panagiotakis / Getty Images)