Jack Todd: Canadiens are showing resilience — even in a 6-1 loss to Buffalo

Players have to buy in to their coach’s plan, and these young Canadiens have bought in to an extraordinary degree.

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It looks gruesome.

It wasn’t.

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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 couple of power-play goals, a bunch of missed chances and the fact that the first game home after a long road trip is always the banana peel on the cellar stairs.

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

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It was a great night for Dollard product Devon Levi, who got a win for the Sabres and bragging rights over his former Northeastern University teammates.

It was not a great night for the Canadiens, who followed a big road win against the powerful Dallas Stars with a loss to their division rivals in Buffalo — but it wasn’t a catastrophe either. Lose 6-1 or 2-1 and it counts exactly the same in the standings.

The Canadiens are still a point up on the Sabres with a game in hand, even though Buffalo is supposed to be a playoff contender and Montreal is not. That is thanks largely to the resilience of a Habs team that has shaken off a season’s worth of adversity through the first 38 games.

How? Head coach Martin St. Louis deserves much of the credit — but there’s more to it than that. There was a brief but intriguing encounter Thursday evening that caught my eye. Buffalo coach Don Granato strolled down the bench to have a few words with fledgling sniper Jack Quinn, who looks 15 but is actually 22. As Granato spoke, Quinn stared off into space as though Granato was boring him silly. Then as the coach walked away, Quinn gave it the old eyeroll/headshake.

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Perhaps I’ve missed it, but in St. Louis’s time behind the Montreal bench, I can’t recall an interaction with a player like that one. St. Louis talks to his players a lot, more than any Canadiens coach I’ve seen — and that’s going back all the way to Al MacNeil and the 1971 Cup. He puts his arm over a player’s shoulder, has a few quick words in his ear, the player listens and nods and both get back to the business at hand.

This is a two-way street. It’s not just the coach. If 21st century players elect not to pay attention, there isn’t a whole lot the coach can do about it except dial back the ice time, and there are players who simply aren’t going to care even then.

I’m not saying that Jack Quinn is hard to coach or that Granato doesn’t have his ear — it’s possible Thursday’s encounter was a one-off. But I’ve yet to see any player on the Canadiens roster disrespect St. Louis in public. Players have to buy in and these young Canadiens have bought in to an extraordinary degree. So have veterans like Mike Matheson, David Savard and Sean Monahan. Even Joel Armia is producing.

The 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 is going to require still more adjustments. Not that Dvorak has been a key contributor: In 25 games this season, the 27-year-old has three goals, four assists. He’s a minus-5 and a minus-36 for his three seasons in the CH. But there are things Dvorak does that don’t draw much attention, like taking faceoffs, killing penalties and working with the second power-play unit.

In this case, it’s not so much the player as the position. The injury bug that has devastated the past three straight seasons has disproportionately struck the forwards during this campaign. Dach and Dvorak are both centremen and Alex Newhook did not embarrass himself when the Habs tried him in the middle.

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

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

Bottom line? The beat goes on. The Canadiens will bounce back from the loss to Buffalo, possibly beginning Saturday night at the Bell Centre against the high-flying Rangers.

Never mind the playoffs. Montreal is 13th in the Eastern Conference, five points adrift of a bunch of contenders. This is all about cohesion, development — and next year.

Now about that power play …

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