March may go down as the oddest month of the season for the Montreal Canadiens. An unexpected week off came as a result of the threat of a Covid-19 exposure and spread within the locker room. Unfortunately, Joel Armia was the one player who tested positive and will hopefully find his way back to good health quickly.
On the ice, even with four games postponed between March 22 – March 29, the month has to be viewed as a mild improvement from February for a variety of reasons. Outside of two extremely flat performances against the Calgary Flames on March 11 and March 13, the team played fairly consistently. They finished March with two straight wins, finally won a game after regulation, and got their first shutout of the season. Overall, the team ended March with a 6-2-4 record, picking up 16 of a possible 24 points in the standings.
The Canadiens are a team built to win by committee rather than through pure star power. Broadly, this was indeed the case once again in March. However, as in any month, there are still stand-out players who rise just a little higher than their teammates, providing an extra spark. Last month, there were three players in particular who helped increase their team’s chance of winning. These are obviously debatable, but for me, these three players are listed below.
3. Tomas Tatar
Tomas Tatar had a bounce-back month after a fairly inconsistent and disappointing offensive month of February. After scoring just four points in 11 games in February, he changed the narrative in March, putting up 11 points in 12 games. He also scored the all-important shootout winner against the Vancouver Canucks, ending the Canadiens 0-9 streak in overtime and the shootout. This goal no doubt lifted a weight from the team’s collective shoulders.
More importantly, Tatar seemed to have regained his chemistry with frequent linemates Phillip Danault and Brendan Gallagher. He could not have picked a better time as through March the playoff race began to tighten. Due to Tatar and his line, the Canadiens managed to create some breathing room in the standings between themselves, the Flames, and Canucks. Now the team is in a position to chase down the top three teams in the Scotia North Division.
2. Carey Price
Carey Price also rebounded very nicely in March and narrowly inched Tatar out of second place. For some, this selection may come as a bit of surprise, but the truth is Price rather quietly had a solid month. He finished with a record of 6-1-2 and a .930 save percentage. He did not have to steal any games for the Canadiens, but he certainly did not cost them any either. He had one questionable game in regulation against the Canucks on March 20, giving up four goals on 18 shots. However, he only allowed one goal in the shootout in that same game and played (along with the Tatar) the hero as the Canadiens finally managed to pick up a point after regulation.
In addition, he finished March with his first shutout of the season and the 49th of his career. Notably, this win and the win prior were the first back-to-back wins of the Dominique Ducharme era. Overall, Price answered the bell in March and reinstalled a sense of calm in the crease after an up and down month of February. Whether this is the influence of new goalie coach Sean Burke has yet to be seen as a larger sample size may be necessary. Either way, he has shown once again that he can be a difference-maker when he is at the top of his game.
1. Brendan Gallagher
Brendan Gallagher led the team in points and effort through 12 games last month. It sounds almost cliche at this point to describe him as the ‘heart and soul’ of the Canadiens, but in March, he proved once again that he can be (and often is) the driving force behind the team’s offence.
He scored a team-leading seven goals in March and added four assists for 11 points in 12 games. The timing and importance of his goals were also very important. On March 4, with the Canadiens trailing 2-0 to the Winnipeg Jets, Gallagher scored a timely power-play goal to get the team on the board. They would ultimately tie the game but lose in overtime. Still, he sparked the team, and they picked up a single point. A similar scenario occurred on March 17 against the same Jets team. The Habs were trailing 3-1 in the final period when off a faceoff, Gallagher willed the puck to the net and tucked a goal five-hole on Jets goalie Connor Hellebuyck. Once again, this sparked the team as they later tied the game. However, again they lost in overtime, picking up a single point.
In the aforementioned Canadiens shootout victory on March 20, Gallagher scored the tying goal in the third period to allow the Canadiens the chance at the extra point. It is difficult to say where the team would be without him. He takes first star honours for last month. Also, if the first game of April suggests anything, it is that Gallagher, Tatar, and Danault will continue to play at a high level. If they can maintain, this the team will be that much more effective and dangerous.
I have just one final note. Honourable mention must go to Tyler Toffoli, who was February’s first star. He still had a fantastic individual month in March, finishing with six goals and four assists for 10 points in 10 games. Those are solid numbers. Unfortunately, Toffoli missed the last two games of the month and dropped out of the top three. However, if when he returns, he continues to play at the level he was, you should expect to see him pushing for a top-three spot in April.