MONTREAL — One month ago, the Montreal Canadiens were in an all-too-familiar tailspin.
The offense struggled and goaltender Carey Price looked like a shadow of his former self. Wins were hard to come by and when they did, they couldn’t string any together. With one win in their first seven games in February, their once commanding Atlantic Division lead dwindled.
But then, two days after Price said his team seemed to have lost our identity following a dispiriting 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins to head into their bye week, general manager Marc Bergevin made his biggest move to date: He replaced coach Michel Therrien with Claude Julien, who had been fired by the Bruins one week earlier.
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As the Canadiens get set to host the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday night at the Bell Centre, it’s clear the change has paid dividends.
On Sunday, Montreal (39-22-8) scored four times in six minutes including a pair of empty net goals to close out its five-game road trip with a 4-1-0 record. Max Pacioretty and Paul Byron each tallied twice to put the club back on top of the division after it was bumped with the Ottawa Senators’ win on Saturday night.
“I thought we did a good job of continuing to press, continuing to press and we had that belief, regardless of how many saves the other guy is going to make, eventually we’re going to break through,” Montreal winger Brendan Gallagher said after the game. “And sure enough it happened. We stuck with it and got rewarded.”
The Canadiens’ confidence has returned under Julien and that helped spur a six-game win streak, their longest stretch of victories since winning nine in a row back in October. And while the goals haven’t come as easily of late, the team is finally getting offense from its supporting cast.
Byron is at the forefront of that resurgence. After scoring three goals from Dec. 22-Feb. 28 – none of which came in February – the speedy winger has scored four times in the last five games. Two of those have been game-winners.
“Even though some games we haven’t been scoring too many, I think this team has really been battling lately,” Byron said.
The month of February was a different story for the Blackhawks (43-20-5), who lost just once in 10 games. That success has continued into March, in which Chicago is 4-2 after a big win over the Minnesota Wild on Sunday, to move to within a point of the Central Division leaders.
Goaltender Corey Crawford was at his best in facing 44 shots, 20 of which came in the second period.
“I think that was a big game for us,” Crawford, the Montreal native who will start against the Canadiens, told CSNChicago.com. “After two losses, coming back against one of the best teams in the league, some big points for us there.”
While their goaltender was on top of his game, the Blackhawks, who were opportunistic on their 22 shots on goal, know their game has to be better.
“Huge game by Crow (Crawford) tonight, but I think overall we want to be better as a team,” Patrick Kane said to CSNChicago.com. “We have 14 games left to make sure that happens and feel good about ourselves going into the playoffs.”
Kane, last year’s Art Ross Trophy, Hart Trophy and Ted Lindsay Award winner, certainly is feeling good these days. The sniper scored his 30th goal of the season on Sunday, his 15th goal in 16 games since Feb. 1.
It’s been a different story for winger Tomas Jurco, whom Chicago acquired from the Detroit Red Wings on Feb. 24. Without a point in 22 games played this season, it’s taken some time for Jurco to adjust to a new system, and he was scratched against the Wild.
“The biggest difference is that here we’re told to make plays instead of just making safe plays and chipping it in and playing safely,” he told the Chicago Tribune. “Here you actually should create something if you want to stick in this lineup because there’s so many creative players.
“I played that third-, fourth-line role so it’s in me now. I have that bad habit sometimes to play safe and chip it in. When I played juniors (and) in the AHL, I was a creative player, so it takes a little while for me.”