A game between the Montreal Canadiens and Boston Bruins doesn’t generally need profound storylines or even the spectacle of an outdoor game to be compelling.
Friday’s contest between the two clubs had both, with the surging Bruins and faltering Habs duking it out in front of more than 60,000 people for first place in the NHL’s Atlantic Division.
It was a chance for Boston to establish itself as the divisional power after a controversial summer and tough start to the year, and a chance to twist the knife into a Montreal team that squandered much of its fine work early in the year with a brutal December.
Instead, the Canadiens delivered a statement with a 5-1 victory. Montreal isn’t going to meekly fade away. There’s fight left in this team.
It’s easy to overstate the importance of any single regular-season game, and it’s worth remembering that this win gives Montreal the same two points that any other win would have. Having noted that caveat, there’s also something to be said for taking away a division lead from a historic rival in front of a massive audience both at the game and on television around North America and the world.
The way the Canadiens won is important, too.
Montreal dominated early, building up a 3-0 lead and controlling puck possession. Boston went 15 minutes between shots in the first period, and early in the second, NBC’s broadcast team noted a 12-0 edge in scoring chances for the Habs.
Not only did the Canadiens control the game early from an analytics perspective, but they also did the gritty things that convert shots and scoring chances to goals.
That 3-0 lead was built entirely on goals scored from point-blank range, as Montreal’s small forwards charged the net. From 5’7” David Desharnais to 5’8” Paul Byron to 5’9” Brendan Gallagher, the Canadiens’ forwards showed that it isn’t necessary to be big to win battles around the crease.
Gallagher, who hadn’t played since November, was an important addition for Montreal. He showed his grit on the 3-0 goal and his skill on an assist on a pretty 4-1 goal by Max Pacioretty.
Even before he had a point, though, NBC’s Pierre McGuire was proclaiming his importance to the team. “He makes the Canadiens instantaneously better because of his courage,” McGuire said. It’s a quality which was reflected throughout the Montreal lineup on Friday.
Another absence that has badly hurt the Canadiens during their slump is that of 2014 Hart Trophy winner Carey Price.
Mike Condon has struggled filling in for the star goaltender but was tested in the back half of the game and came through with shining colours. A last-second save on Ryan Spooner in the second period was perhaps pivotal in preventing a Boston comeback.
That combination of quality goaltending and converting on shots has been a long time coming for Montreal.
Reflecting on the then-upcoming Winter Classic in late December, Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty described it to NHL.com’s Arpon Basu as an opportunity to show the hockey world that Montreal could succeed even without Price:
That's a big stage and people are going to have their opinions about our team and the way we play. We've got to get some confidence going before that and hopefully going into that game it would be nice to show the world what we're capable of and the way we're capable of playing. People who don't watch our games are going to assume we're a one-player team, but if you look at 5-on-5 scoring chances, you look at shots and offense generated, and we've been up there every game. To not have the results is definitely frustrating, but we want to show people what we're capable of doing and that is definitely the main stage to do so.
It’s safe to say that the team obtained its objective, and now the task will be to build off this performance and not allow it to be a one-off victory. This December slump has put Montreal’s command of the Atlantic in peril, and the coming months will be about rebuilding the club’s lead on first place.
Improved goaltending is one reason for optimism. Condon didn’t just make big saves. He had perhaps his best game of the season, with his .964 save percentage being the best mark he’s managed in any 60-minute game.
For the short term, he’s finally going to have some competition for starts in the form of newly acquired goalie Ben Scrivens.
That duo just needs to hold the fort for a few more games, as general manager Marc Bergevin recently told Pat Hickey of the Montreal Gazette that Price would be back in mid-January.
Gallagher’s combination of fire and finishing ability will be a boost to the forward corps, too. His quality as a player is well-established, but what he showed in the Winter Classic is that he’s ready to help immediately.
He’s not going to take weeks to recover his scoring touch, and he’s not going to show any hesitation going to the tough areas of the ice. One game into his return, he’s already back to being the kind of player he was before getting hurt.
Montreal’s ready to turn the page on a tough month, to show that it is a top team in the Eastern Conference and a credible threat for the Stanley Cup.
The team’s performance at the Winter Classic was the best possible start to those efforts.
Now it’s just a matter of following through.
Statistics courtesy of NHL.com.
Jonathan Willis covers the NHL for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter for more of his work.