Jack Todd: Canadians show resilience, even in 6-1 loss to Buffalo

Players have to accept their coach’s plan, and these young Canadians have accepted that to an extraordinary degree.

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It looks scary.

It was not.

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Hidden in that 6-1 final score against Buffalo are a pair of empty-net goals, a pair of disallowed goals courtesy of the Toronto War Room, a pair of power-play goals, a ton of missed opportunities and the fact that That first game at home after a long road trip is always the banana peel on the basement stairs.

Add in another gut punch in the form of a season-ending torn pectoral muscle for center Christian Dvorak and it’s surprising that the Canadiens only trailed 2-1 when Jack Quinn scored at the 6:45 mark of the third period.

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It was a big night for Dollard product Devon Levi, who earned a win for the Sabers and bragging rights over his former Northeastern University teammates.

It was not a great night for the Canadiens, who after a great road victory against the powerful Dallas Stars lost to their division rivals in Buffalo, but it was not a catastrophe either. Lose 6-1 or 2-1 and it counts exactly the same in the standings.

The Canadiens are still one point ahead of the Sabers with a game in hand, even though Buffalo is supposed to be a playoff contender and Montreal is not. This is largely due to the resilience of a Habs team that has shaken off a season’s worth of adversity in its first 38 games.

As? Head coach Martin St. Louis deserves a lot of the credit, but there’s more to it than that. There was a brief but intriguing encounter Thursday night that caught my attention. Buffalo coach Don Granato walked down the sideline to have a word with rookie sharpshooter Jack Quinn, who looks 15 years old but is actually 22. As Granato spoke, Quinn stared into space as if Granato were boring him silly. Then, as the coach walked away, Quinn rolled her eyes at him and shook her head.

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Maybe I’ve missed it, but in the days when St. Louis was behind Montreal’s bench, I don’t remember an interaction with a player like that. St. Louis talks to his players a lot, more than any Canadiens coach I’ve ever seen, and that goes back to Al MacNeil and the 1971 Cup. He puts his arm on a player’s shoulder, says a few quick words in their ear , the player listens and nods and they both return to the matter at hand.

This is a two-way street. It’s not just the coach. If 21st century players choose not to pay attention, the coach can’t do much about it except reduce ice time, and there are players who simply won’t care even then.

I’m not saying that Jack Quinn is difficult to train or that Granato doesn’t have his ear; Thursday’s meeting may have been unique. But I have yet to see a player on the Canadiens roster disrespect St. Louis in public. Players have to accept and these young Canadians have done so to an extraordinary degree. So have veterans like Mike Matheson, David Savard and Sean Monahan. Even Joel Armia is producing.

Injuries are another matter. When Kirby Dach went down in the first period of the second game of the season, you could see the impact on his teammates. Dach was one of four or five players whose presence in the lineup was absolutely crucial to anything the Canadiens hoped to accomplish, and his teammates were devastated.

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The loss of Dvorak will require even more adjustments. Not that Dvorak has been a key contributor: in 25 games this season, the 27-year-old has three goals and four assists. He has a -5 and a -36 in his three seasons at CH. But there are things Dvorak does that don’t draw much attention, like taking faceoffs, eliminating penalties and working with the second power-play unit.

In this case, it’s not so much the player but the position. The injury bug that has ravaged the last three consecutive seasons has disproportionately affected forwards this season. Dach and Dvorak are both centers and Alex Newhook was not embarrassed when the Habs tried him in the middle.

The first two are out for the season and Newhook is expected to return in mid-February. Also missing up front are Rafaël Harvey-Pinard (who will return on January 17) and Tanner Pearson, who is expected to return next week.

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Ironically, for the first time in years the Canadiens have center ice depth, but it has already been depleted with the call-up of Mitchell Stephens. The only player who can replace Dvorak and truly provide an upgrade at the position is the versatile Sean Monahan. Perhaps with the return of Harvey-Pinard and Pearson, Monahan’s presence on the wing won’t be as crucial.

Bottom line? The rhythm continues. The Canadiens will bounce back from the loss to Buffalo, possibly starting Saturday night at the Bell Center against the high-flying Rangers.

It doesn’t matter about the playoffs. Montreal sits in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, five points clear of a group of contenders. It’s about cohesion, development and next year.

Now about that power play…

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