MONTREAL — There were many sequences in this 4-0 Montreal Canadiens win over the Buffalo Sabres that popped, but one in particular that sizzled and symbolized the enormous impact Martin St. Louis has had in just two weeks as head coach of the team.
It didn’t involve Sam Montembeault, who recorded the first shutout of his NHL career. It had nothing to do with Nick Suzuki, who played arguably the most dominant game of his career — scoring two goals, notching an assist, directing seven shots on net, winning 11 of 17 faceoffs and making brilliant pass after brilliant pass.
Jeff Petry, who followed up his three best games of the season with an even better one, wasn’t really a part of this sequence either. Nor was Cole Caufield, who extended his point streak to four games with an assist in the first period and scored his sixth goal in seven games under St. Louis in the third.
And Mike Hoffman, who played brilliantly and did everything but score in this one, was about 30 feet away from it when Laurent Dauphin, skating through the neutral zone and into a trap of four Sabres, did a spin-o-rama and then managed to stickhandle through a defender to extend the play long enough for Hoffman and the other Canadiens on the ice to catch up.
This was Dauphin, the 2013 second-round pick of the Arizona Coyotes who had toiled mostly in the minors up until this season. Dauphin, the player who St. Louis scratched for his first three games behind Montreal’s bench.
But on this sequence, he was Dauphin tapping into an inner-Alex Kovalev no one knew he had. On this one — and several others in a game that saw the two lines he played on dominate the even-strength shot attempts 15-5 — he used his instincts and had the confidence to make a play most wouldn’t have believed he was capable of making.
How was it symbolic of St. Louis’ impact? Well, if the 13th forward made a play like that, imagine what the other 12 — and all the defencemen — have been doing since the 46-year-old traded in his tracksuit for an Armani.
This is a coach who came off a bantam bench and talked about how his adjustment to stepping behind an NHL one wouldn’t be as big as everyone was making it out to be. “Hockey is hockey,” he said at his introductory press conference.
The Canadiens weren’t playing it through their first 45 games under Dominique Ducharme, but they’re playing it now.
St. Louis said he wouldn’t box them in with a system. He said he believed more in concepts rather than systems. He asked the Canadiens to forecheck hard, backcheck harder, stay on top of their men, make reads, play on instinct, play with confidence, make the best play and not just a good play, play hockey, and just have fun.
It’s simple stuff.
But there’s beauty in simplicity.
And I don’t know if what the Canadiens have been doing through St. Louis’ time as coach would be considered beautiful, but it sure is a lot prettier than what they were doing before.
“We shut the brains off a little bit,” said Brett Kulak, who played a near-flawless 26 shifts against the Sabres. “We’re not thinking about too much to do, and everyone’s kind of expressing their skills and their strengths kind of in different ways and different situations on the ice. It’s just clicking.
“Things are working really well right now and I think we’re playing with more speed than we have all year. Everyone just looks kind of like a better player right now together and it’s been a big snowball effect over the last few days or so.”
From Suzuki to Caufield — who combined for 17 points with Josh Anderson over the last three and a half games before Anderson left this one in the second period after taking Casey Mittelstadt’s wrist shot in the cheekbone — to Kulak and Dauphin. The Canadiens are unshackled.
“They’re great players, they’re in the NHL and, for me, it’s about meeting me halfway with the non-negotiable stuff — the game management, the puck management,” St. Louis said. “If they check the boxes there, I want them to play and trust their instincts. That’s why they’re in the NHL.”
That approach has inspired the confidence that’s led to this first four-game winning streak (in the regular season) for the Canadiens since January of 2019. It’s a confidence that Kulak said was brewing even through the first three losses under St. Louis.
It remained intact after Paul Byron left with an upper-body injury early in the first period of Wednesday’s game. It remained unchanged even when Anderson went down late in the second.
It stems partly from a commitment and engagement that’s been there for a fortnight. One that’s risen with each passing day.
“I have a lot of buy-in from the players,” said St. Louis. “There’s a lot of winners in this team — the guys who take care of the team a lot. You win a lot of games with guys like that. It’s 4-0 and we’re blocking shots with one minute left. It’s fun to see how quickly the culture has progressed.”
But St. Louis’ role in that progression is massive. It shouldn’t be understated.
The Canadiens lost too many games with the same guys and knocked themselves out of playoff contention well before he arrived. They didn’t look like the team that went to the Stanley Cup Final last summer, and they certainly didn’t look like winners.
Even with that changed, no one is under the illusion they’re going to rattle off win after win over the final 30 games.
But the coach who had zero professional experience prior has already broken through to every player on the roster, and he’s making the team look like one that will at least compete in all of them.