Stu Cowan: Canadiens' defencemen continue to spark the offence

With 30 goals combined they are tied with Colorado for most in NHL and all nine defencemen who have played for Habs have at least one goal.

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The Canadiens keep getting goals from their defencemen.

Kaiden Guhle and Jordan Harris scored in Tuesday night’s 4-3 win over the Stars in Dallas, giving Canadiens defencemen 30 goals this season. That’s tied for the most in the NHL with the Colorado Avalanche, who are led by Cale Makar with eight.

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Harris’s goal means all nine defencemen who have played for the Canadiens this season have at least one goal.

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Mike Matheson and Justin Barron lead the way with six goals each, followed by Johnathan Kovacevic (five), Guhle (three), Gustav Lindström (three), David Savard (three), Jayden Struble (two), Arber Xhekaj (one) and Harris (one).

Last season, the Canadiens got 33 goals from their defencemen. Matheson, who was limited to 48 games because of injuries, led the way with eight.

“The coaches encourage all the time jumping up in the play — as long as you’re smart about it in choosing your spots,” Harris told reporters in Dallas after Tuesday’s game. “So we can jump in and help out. I thought it was a good time to do it. It worked out well.”

Harris’s goal, which gave the Canadiens a 3-1 lead 6:54 into the second period, came after a strong backcheck by forward Juraj Slafkovsky created a loose puck in the defensive zone. Harris picked it up and went the other way on a three-on-two with Nick Suzuki and Cole Caufield. Harris looked like he was going to pass and then surprised goalie Scott Wedgewood with a quick wrist shot to the stick side.

“It started all with Slaf backtracking,” Harris said. “I don’t know if he got an assist on it … he should get an assist on the play. It was a great play by him.”

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When told by reporters his goal was unassisted, Harris said Slafkovsky should get an “honorary assist.”

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Slafkovsky did get an assist on Suzuki’s goal at 4:14 of the first period that tied the score 1-1 after Jamie Benn had opened the scoring only 11 seconds into the game after a bad giveaway by Matheson.

“I think just the way the league’s going, whenever you’re on offence it’s a five-man unit going on offence,” Harris said about jumping into the play offensively. “I know we have the defencemen that can make the plays, so (the coaches) encourage it and it’s something that we talk about as a group is doing it the right way. But definitely getting pucks on net and jumping up in the play and making plays.”

Guhle’s goal, which gave the Canadiens a 2-1 lead at 9:46 of the second period, came after he jumped in from the blue line to pick up a rebound of a point shot by Kovacevic and buried it behind Wedgewood with a quick snapshot.

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“We had that first goal (against), kind of unfortunate, tough bounce,” Guhle told reporters in Dallas. “I think we responded well. It didn’t even faze us. We had a goal pretty soon after that (by Suzuki) and then my goal might have helped us a bit. Getting scored on that early, not that we were sleeping at the start, but I think it really woke us up and made us push a little bit harder after that.”

After going up 4-1 when Caufield scored at 6:45 of the third period on a power play, the Stars pushed hard to come back and scored at 16:12 and 18:00 with Wedgewood on the bench for an extra attacker. But goalie Samuel Montembeault shut the door for the final two minutes and the Canadiens won despite getting outshot 33-18.

A Canadiens goalie reaches back with his glove hand to stop a puck right in front of the stick of a Dallas Stars player
Sam Montembeault #35 of the Montreal Canadiens stops a shot from Jamie Benn #14 of the Dallas Stars during the third period at American Airlines Center on Jan. 2, 2024 in Dallas, Texas. Photo by Sam Hodde /Getty Images

After the game, Harris and Guhle both spoke about the strong job the forwards did backchecking — especially high in the defensive zone — like what Slafkovsky did to help set up Harris’s goal. The two defencemen said it’s something the team has been doing a lot of video work on.

The defencemen are starting to get more help offensively, especially from the No. 1 line of Suzuki, Caufield and Slafkovsky. Suzuki has points in eight of the last nine games with 4-8-12 totals during that span. Caufield has scored in three straight games and has points in seven of the last eight with 4-3-7 totals during that span. Slafkovsky has 2-5-7 totals in the last eight games.

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The Canadiens ended a three-game losing streak with the win in Dallas and finished a stretch of seven straight road games with a 3-3-1 record. After enjoying a day off at home Wednesday, they will face the Sabres Thursday at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).

“We probably could have won any of those games since Christmas,” Guhle told reporters in Dallas. “We’ve been playing really well. I don’t think any of those losses that we had were from us playing poorly. They were all close games and just maybe little mistakes that they executed on or a lack of execution. But we’ve been playing really good hockey as of late and I feel really good about our group going into the New Year.”

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