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Canadiens raise expectations in resurgent season

Not happy with one point in overtime loss to rival Maple Leafs, remain third in Atlantic

by Dave Stubbs @Dave_Stubbs / NHL.com Columnist

MONTREAL -- The sombre tones in the Montreal Canadiens' dressing room at Bell Centre on Saturday told you a great deal about the home team.

The single point earned in its 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs was little more than a consolation prize, a thanks-for-coming pat on the back for the game-show runner-up.

 

[WATCH: All Maple Leafs at Canadiens highlights]

 

But 60-plus minutes of compelling hockey between the NHL's two oldest rivals had shown this: the Canadiens can keep pace with an opponent that just a few months ago was believed by many to be far out of their league. Had a puck glanced the other way off a goal post or a power-play opportunity been cashed, Montreal would have leap-frogged Toronto into second place in the Atlantic Division.

"We're not on our high horses but we're a confident team that thinks that if they play well enough, they can win any game," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien, whose team ended a seven-game homestand with 10 of 14 available points (4-1-2). "As we all know, winning can be contagious and so can losing. When you get satisfied with losses, it's not a good sign for your hockey club."

A Canadiens team that owner Geoff Molson had joked days before the start of training camp was viewed grimly by some as "the worst team on the planet" now seems entirely worthy of the Stanley Cup Playoffs. Much hockey has yet to be played to get there, of course, but the gloomy cloud and dark sense of inevitable doom in this city has lifted.

Video: TOR@MTL: Gallagher crashes net, notches PPG

On Feb. 10 last year, Montreal was third from the cellar in the Eastern Conference with 50 points in 54 games (22-26-6). Twelve months later, the Canadiens are third in the Atlantic with 69 points through 56 games (31-18-7), six points up on the Pittsburgh Penguins, who hold the second wild-card into the Stanley Cup Playoffs from the East. 

Montreal finished the 2017-18 season 29-40-13, its 71 points 26 fewer than the New Jersey Devils, who earned the second wild card berth into the postseason from the East. Where the Canadiens finish this season remains to be seen.

On Jan. 7, general manager Marc Bergevin said he was "always going to be listening to options" with the 2019 NHL Trade Deadline looming Feb. 25 at 3 p.m. ET. "But the goal is to build for the future, and just to give up assets for a short-term (addition), I'm not going to do it. … I don't think I'll be in the rental business."

The Canadiens have gone 9-3-2 since that day, with winning streaks of four and three games. They dipped their toe into trade waters on Saturday, repatriating former Canadiens forward Dale Weise with defenseman Christian Folin from the Philadelphia Flyers for forwards David Schlemko and Byron Froese.

At this time last year, the playoffs were no part of any Montreal equation. On Saturday, the Canadiens pushed the Maple Leafs beyond regulation, John Tavares clinching Toronto's win 2:17 into overtime. With the Canadiens' place in the standings the product of an exciting, fast brand of hockey, the sun now rises daily in a market that a year ago was nuclear winter.

"That game is ours," grumbled forward Andrew Shaw, who scored a goal and had an assist in his return to the lineup following 15 games missed with a neck injury. "A little turnover at the blue line, they go down and score. It's the game of hockey. Those little mistakes end up biting you in the butt."

The Bell Centre crowd was on the edge of its seat throughout, even more so than usual when the Maple Leafs are in town on a Saturday night with hundreds, even thousands, of their rowdy fans in the building. Toronto and Montreal haven't met in the playoffs since 1979, and the possibility it could happen this season has fans of both filled with equal parts anticipation and dread.

"The atmosphere in here was probably as close as you're going to get (to the playoffs)," said Canadiens captain Shea Weber, whose 25:32 of ice time and five hits were both game highs.

Weber would get no disagreement from teammate Max Domi, whose two assists padded his team-leading output to 49 points (17 goals, 32 assists).

"The speed, the physicality… the atmosphere was great but there were some errors on both teams' sides," Domi said. "They found a way to capitalize at the very end and we didn't."

Julien found much to like, his team fully engaged on the heels of an impressive 5-2 win against the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday. And he said that the intense game against Toronto was a good test especially for his younger players who have no playoff seasoning.

"I think we played well (against the Jets) but tonight there was a lot of emotion in the game - it was the Toronto Maple Leafs against the Montreal Canadiens," he said of the historic rivals. "This was great for us. We have a lot of guys who haven't been (to the playoffs) and we hope that they're going to get a chance to be there. This was actually a pretty good sample of what you would get in the playoffs."

Just the thought of four or more postseason games between the Canadiens and Maple Leafs quickens the pulse in two markets that might spontaneously combust should the series happen. But with a point left on the table Saturday, a tight-lipped Domi wasn't entertaining the idea when it was pitched to him, the very short term all that mattered to himself and his teammates.

"Where are we going, what is it, Thursday? We play Nashville, is that it?" he said of the Canadiens' first stop on a three-game road trip to Tennessee and Florida. "Yeah. Focus on that game. That's about it."

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