After a difficult summer that saw their captain traded and no veteran infusion to address a 14th-place conference finish, the Montreal Canadiens started the new season with a couple of eyebrow-raising lineup calls.
Coach Claude Julien made healthy scratches of defenceman Karl Alzner, thus ending the NHL’s fourth-longest active streak in consecutive games played at 622, behind Keith Yandle (715), Patrick Marleau (706) and Phil Kessel (692). Centre Tomas Plekanec, last year’s playoff pick-up for the Leafs, perhaps looking forward to a game against the friends he made last season, was also dropped as fourth-line centre, delaying yet again his reaching 1,000 games.
The latter decision might have more to do with aligning that milestone evening to be in front of his family at the Bell Centre next week rather than on the road in Pittsburgh, but Julien insisted he was dressing the team he thought had the best chance to win. If the pundits are right, that won’t be too often in 2018-19.
“They are never easy decisions,” Julien said after the morning skate. “It’s obvious there were two (records) happening there, but at the end of the day, we’re all mandated to do what’s best for the team first. We sympathize with certain things, but that’s all what we’re here for — including those players.”
The Canadiens do have a healthy Carey Price, who kept a .900 save percentage when he did play last season, and the addition of Max Domi, now free to play after a pre-season suspension. But fans hoping for better times are most-anxiously awaiting the debut of their young Finnish star, Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the third-overall pick this year.
“We’ve said it through camp, he’s getting better every day,” teammate Brendan Gallagher mentioned before the match. “Every game he’s played, you’re left feeling that was probably his best and the next time he shows up he does it again. That’s pretty impressive for a young kid. He doesn’t need to change a thing from pre-season.”
“I like his progression since Day 1. There is a huge difference (in North America with the style and the smaller ice) and he has adapted quick. That’s what has impressed me most,” Julien said.
The Canadiens are used to media scrutiny at home, but were buried the past two days in the hype around Toronto about the Leafs.
“That’s their group, we’re just focusing on ourselves,” Gallagher insisted. “We have our own goals and ambitions. We know they have a good team with a lot of quality players and that it’s tough to come in here and win.
“(Speed and work ethic) has to be our identity. For us to be successful, we have to out-work teams, out-compete teams. The outside opinion of our group is that we aren’t going to be very successful. The internal view is we’ll be competitive every night. We’re going to win games as a team, not as individuals. I’ve been on a couple of teams who’ve played that style of hockey and it’s a fun atmosphere to be around. I think we’ll enjoy it this year.”