BROSSARD -- There's an old saying that defense wins championships, and the Habs have taken it to heart anew.
Since being outscored 26-11 through the first eight games this month, the Canadiens vowed on Monday to be better defensively moving forward -- and spark their offense along the way as a result.
"Our focus right now is on our D-zone, and spending the least amount of time in it," acknowledged Jeff Petry, as the Habs practiced in Brossard prior to flying out to New York. "The less time you spend in the D-zone means more time spent in the O-zone. Right now it's about killing plays and getting the puck back when it's in our own end. We're trying to come out with speed, and as a group. We're focusing on the D-zone, but [the improvements will] carry over to both ends."
Puck possession is something new head coach Claude Julien prided himself on in Boston, and it's something he continues to stress even in Montreal.
"We worked hard on our defensive game today. That will help us get pucks back quicker and more often, so that we're able to create scoring chances," explained the incoming Habs bench boss. "If we're better on defense, then we'll create more turnovers, which lead to offense. The players know that if they get things right the first time, they'll spend less time in our own zone. It's a question of puck possession. We need to be stronger on the puck, and I want to see us spending more time in the offensive zone when we have it."
Video: Julien on improvements to come
WORK HARD, PLAY HARD
While he continues to put his stamp on the club during his first week on the job, on Monday, Julien put the Habs through their paces with a notably intense morning skate.
"Intensity at practice will carry over to games," stressed the Ontario native. "Practice is rarely more than 45 to 50 minutes long, but if we can work with some intensity, then it will start to come naturally any time we hit the ice. That's what we're aiming for with these kinds of practices."
A quick poll of the dressing room pointed to encouraging feedback regarding Julien's more physical methods.
"Both practices so far, he's liked to end with a 3-on-3 down low to get the compete level up," described Brendan Gallagher, who skated on a line with Alex Galchenyuk and Paul Byron. "You can't win in this league if you're not ready to battle down low and fight in those tight areas. He's just getting us ready, and as players I think it's good for us -- you work hard, you push and compete with each other -- and that's the only way you get better."
Added his center, in Galchenyuk:
"It's great. It helps us prepare for the game better, because it was almost a game-like tempo this morning. We went out there and competed. It was definitely good."
Video: Galchenyuk on a game-like tempo at practice
SEE YOU AGAIN SOON?
If the playoffs began today, Montreal would face the New York Rangers -- tomorrow's hosts -- in the first round.
That's why even though it's officially winter, come game time on Tuesday, the hockey at Madison Square Garden might have more of a springtime feel to it.
"We still have 23 games left to play, but with every team wanting to make the playoffs, the games are getting tighter," underlined Byron. "There's going to be a playoff intensity tomorrow night, and we're going to be ready for it."
The Habs have faced the Rangers just once so far this season, winning 5-4 at the Bell Centre on January 14, but a lot has changed since then -- including the gap atop the standings.
"We follow the standings a little -- they show you if you're playing good hockey or not," admitted Byron, as the Habs now sit two points clear of the Ottawa Senators in the Atlantic Division. "We haven't played our best these last couple of weeks, and teams are getting close to us. We need to keep working hard and find ways to win."
Video: Byron on improving defensively
In other words, it's not time to sound the alarm just yet.
"Is there a sense of urgency? Obviously, yes. We need to get back on track, but we need to do so the right way," emphasized Julien. "You can't cheat the game, it won't work. We'll try to play well, and the results will follow. We're living in the present, not in the past."
And presently, Montreal is still first in its division.
"We're a group right now that knows we're a good team. As we clean up some aspects of our game, our main focus is playing the right way. As we do that, the standings and points will take care of themselves," concluded Petry. "Our focus is on the next game. Everyone in here wants to win, but we've got to do so the right way and play our style of hockey."