Canadiens didn't need torch in home opener to beat Blackhawks 3-2

Veteran Sean Monahan leads the way with a goal, an assist and a plus-3 differential while winning 88 per cent of his faceoffs.

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The Canadiens left their famous torch somewhere in the back of the locker room for Saturday night’s home opener at the Bell Centre.

They didn’t need it, beating the Chicago Blackhawks 3-2 to earn three of a possible four points from their first two games this season with a 1-0-1 record.

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The pre-game ceremony with player introductions was toned down from previous years. It was a sign of how this new management team wants to focus on looking forward instead of looking back at the franchise’s history with 24 Stanley Cups — the last one 30 years ago — and the handing down of the torch to start every season.

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Cole Caufield, Tanner Pearson and Sean Monahan (short-handed) scored for the Canadiens. Tyler Johnson scored both goals for the Blackhawks, including one with 1:21 left in the third period and goalie Petr Mrazek on the bench for an extra attacker.

Things really got tense for the Canadiens after Monahan took a high-sticking penalty with 22 seconds left. Seth Jones blasted a point shot off the goalpost and then Mike Matheson and Nick Suzuki blocked shots in the final five seconds as the Canadiens held on for the win with Samuel Montembeault in goal.

For Caufield, it was his second goal in two games, and he now has 50 goals in 85 games since Martin St. Louis took over as head coach.

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For Pearson, it was his first goal since last Oct. 28 with the Vancouver Canucks in a season that ended after only 14 games because of a broken hand that required surgery. It was Monahan’s first goal since his final game with the Canadiens last season on Dec. 5 before being sidelined with a broken foot and then a groin injury that required surgery.

The Canadiens are a much better team with a healthy Monahan in the lineup. They had a 12-11-2 record last season before he was sidelined.

On this night, Monahan finished with a goal, an assist and a plus-3 differential, while winning 14 of the 16 faceoffs he took (88 per cent). His short-handed goal came on a breakaway after a beautiful one-handed pass from Rafaël Harvey-Pinard and Monahan beat Mrazek with a low shot to the stick side.

“It was my old goalie in junior (with the Ottawa 67’s) and I think I know where to go on him,” Monahan said.

Spoken like a true veteran.

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Monahan’s veteran presence is huge for the young, rebuilding Canadiens. The 29-year-old said he doesn’t know how to explain his role on the team, but he seems to be able to slow down the speed of the game or speed it up when he’s on the ice. Whatever works best for the team.

“I just try and play with the game I know,” he said. “I think there’s different situations in the game where you try and change momentum or slow things down or speed things back up. Sometimes you want to keep it simple, sometimes you’re trying to make plays. I try and be a guy that can help the team and I guess calm the team down and be ready for the following shift.

“I just try and make the game as easy as possible,” Monahan added. “I think when you do that you’re keeping it simple.”

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Head coach Martin St. Louis said the biggest thing Monahan brings is consistency.

“It seems like his bad games are not very bad,” St. Louis said. “His bad is good. … You know what you’re going to get every night. He’s very responsible. He plays both sides of the puck. Good offensively, very aware defensively. Great on draws. There’s a lot to like with a healthy Sean Monahan, for sure.”

Much of the focus heading into the game was on the Blackhawks’ Connor Bedard, the No. 1 overall pick at this year’s NHL Draft. The 18-year-old had five shots on goal and picked up an assist, giving him 1-2-3 totals in his first three games. Bedard was booed almost every time he touched the puck and he also took Monahan’s high-stick to the face in the final minute, drawing blood.

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The Canadiens took seven penalties, but killed them all off, including a 5-on-3 advantage the Blackhawks had for 45 seconds in the first period. The Canadiens failed to score on their two power-play chances.

There was some bad news for the Canadiens when Kirby Dach left the game in the first period after suffering a lower-body injury that appeared to be to his right knee. St. Louis said Dach would be re-evaluated on Sunday.

“You never want to see a guy get hurt, especially a guy like Kirby,” Monahan said. “You feel for him. I saw him right when we came in after the (first) period. He’s in good spirits. I think you try and win the game for him.

“I thought it was a good team effort,” Monahan added. “We were in the box a lot and everybody stuck together.”

The Canadiens will be back in action Tuesday when the Minnesota Wild visit the Bell Centre (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

The torch won’t be there.

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