Young Canadiens have an opportunity to prove their mental toughness to their coach



ANAHEIM, Calif. — The day after the Montreal Canadiens lost 5-2 to the Boston Bruins on the road Saturday night, coach Martin St. Louis went home to Connecticut with his wife and youngest son, making up for lost time with a family he has seen far too little of this season.

When he came back to work Monday, he did so with a purpose, a singular one he believed had fallen so far off the map in Boston that he had to immediately get it back: the team’s forecheck.

Now, by forecheck, St. Louis doesn’t only mean the traditional sense of the word. Yes, it includes putting the puck behind the opposing defence and going after it, but more broadly, it refers to how the Canadiens play once they don’t have the puck all over the ice. Though Brendan Gallagher’s blowing a tire certainly did not help matters and the goal was the result of a bad bounce, the Canadiens’ forecheck was generous in terms of the time and space they gave the Bruins to operate through the neutral zone and into their zone.

That first practice Monday was heavily focused on work. There were forechecking drills that continued on a loop, the work rate was extremely high, and practice ended with some sprints up and down the ice. The message was sent, according to St. Louis, that the players needed to be accountable for their performance.

He has spoken in the past about how a coach has only so many bullets he can use to elicit a reaction from his players, a term he used to describe a first-intermission tongue-lashing he gave the Canadiens in a game against the Winnipeg Jets a few weeks ago.

“I don’t even think today’s a bullet, to be honest,” St. Louis said. “It’s just the truth.”

The players accepted their fate Monday and understood the message. It was deserved. Nick Suzuki didn’t disagree with St. Louis’ description of the Canadiens’ performance in Boston as being “soft,” though he was quick to differentiate between a soft performance and a soft team.

“There are different terms you can use for soft, but we definitely played soft against a team that plays hard,” Suzuki said. “It was unacceptable, and we know that. … It was a hard skate, a few days in between games.

“We knew what we were probably going to be up against today in practice.”

The team flew to California after that practice and took the ice Tuesday at the Honda Center. And though St. Louis had spoken Monday about how when you plug one leak on a hockey team, another leak can quickly pop up elsewhere if you don’t pay attention, his focus did not change Tuesday.

He was still working on plugging the same leak. Except this time, it was far more detail-oriented, specific situations where the forecheck was letting the Canadiens down.

Like line changes.

Scotty Bowman famously practiced changing lines on the fly, but it’s not something you necessarily see often during an NHL season. In training camp perhaps, but not in the middle of the season.

“That’s an area of our game we’re used to being pretty effective at, used to giving other teams a tough time with,” Gallagher said. “But right now, it’s an area that’s giving us a tough time.”

This one drill was a window into how detail-oriented St. Louis can be. This was not simply having one team exit the defensive zone and getting the puck deep enough to execute a full change. A lot more was going on.

At one point, Johnathan Kovacevic and Kaiden Guhle went to change once the puck had left their end. St. Louis immediately blew his whistle and asked Kovacevic why he was changing. The puck, see, was not in the offensive zone; it was in the neutral zone. Except they had already gone through a few reps of the drill, and Kovacevic acknowledged afterward that he was on autopilot a bit, and once the puck left his zone, he didn’t pay enough attention to where it wound up.

St. Louis did. And Kovacevic had no problem with it.

“It is a big part of our game,” he said. “If you have a change and they’re coming full speed, then you’re basically guaranteed to play defence. But if you’re more organized off that, then hopefully you’re not giving up a clean entry off a line change. … (St. Louis) is very detailed. I think it’s nice. Obviously, the goal is to make it subconscious, where we’re going on second nature or instinct. And once we’re all doing that, we’ll be flying together.”

At another point, St. Louis stopped the drill to ask who the second forward was to come off the bench on the change. Because no matter what position you play, the responsibilities for the forwards on a line change forecheck are doled out based on when you come off the bench. On this occasion, Michael Pezzetta was second off the bench and Jesse Ylönen was third, and based on that, St. Louis wanted to see an adjustment to where Ylönen went when he got on the ice.

Details.

“Everyone has a job to do, so whether you’re the first, second or third forward, you have a job to do,” Gallagher said. “And if one guy doesn’t do his job, then you have a breakdown. So it’s just a matter of dialing it in and making sure the details of our game are where they need to be.

“(The third forward) has to make reads and see the first two forwards, obviously, and be in a position where you’re balancing us out on the ice.”

Later in practice, St. Louis separated the forwards and defencemen and got to work on something hyper-specific and hyper-basic with the forwards. They worked on chipping the puck in the zone at the offensive blue line. Really.

Cole Caufield mentioned that the Canadiens lead the NHL in icings, which is why they were doing that drill. If that was the message to prove a point, well done, because according to Evolving-Hockey, the Canadiens don’t lead the NHL in icings. They are eighth with 78 icings in 18 games, well behind the actual league leader, the Pittsburgh Penguins, who have 97 (!) in 17 games.

Again, this is a detail of the game that most coaches wouldn’t think of practicing, but St. Louis did Tuesday. It was only a few minutes, but every minute on the ice in an NHL practice is precious and meticulously planned, so for St. Louis to devote even those few minutes to something as basic as this meant he valued it and believed it was important.

But more so than that chip-in drill, the forecheck was identified by St. Louis as something that had to be immediately addressed. And it had to be addressed with a sledgehammer over two straight days of practice, three time zones apart.

“That’s the one part of our game we’ve got to get back now. Now. Not let it slip for three or four games,” St. Louis said. “If you try to improve everything at once, it’s going to be hard. It’s too many things. So, for us, we just felt like the forecheck is everything to our game.”

This is perhaps one example of a lesson St. Louis learned last season, when he acknowledged allowing the Canadiens’ defensive-zone game to slip once he believed it had been covered in practice despite what he was seeing on the ice. That slip resulted in a seven-game losing streak that straddled the Christmas break, something St. Louis seems intent on not allowing to repeat itself, with the Canadiens currently sitting at four losses in a row.

“I don’t wait,” St. Louis said. “I see the most important thing, and for me, the Boston game, it was our forecheck. That’s it. The rest would have been fine if we just forechecked like we know how. Somehow it slipped. Is it because of the other team? Probably a little bit. But it’s still a lot of our actions that created the kind of result that we got, and it started so far from the puck.

“In this league, when you forecheck space, it’s really hard to steal the puck. You’ve got to forecheck people.”

After practice in Brossard, Quebec, on Monday, St. Louis mentioned how a young team like the Canadiens is more vulnerable to being deflated by playing well in games against the Vancouver Canucks and Calgary Flames but not coming away with a win in either of them. He questioned the team’s mental toughness, saying it had slipped.

This is the test of the current trip in California, three games in four days starting Wednesday against the Anaheim Ducks, and more so than the results, St. Louis needs to see that mental toughness from his players. He has challenged them, with his words after the game in Boston and with his actions over two days of practice. The response should be telling.

“For a young team, we’ve just got to stay mentally strong and get at it. We’ve just got to get back to that,” St. Louis said Monday. “Every team’s going to go through that this year, but younger teams are more vulnerable.

“This has to be part of our growth.”

(Photo of Josh Anderson trying to forecheck Mason Lohrei: Maddie Meyer / Getty Images)





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