In Game 1 of their first-round series against the Toronto Maple Leafs, the Montreal Canadiens earned an impressive and improbable victory, backstopped by goaltender Carey Price and with goals from Josh Anderson and Paul Byron. The Maple Leafs came out flying in Game 2, handing the Canadiens a deserved 5-1 loss.
We’ve already talked about how the Canadiens can compete with the Maple Leafs in this series, but the stats won’t necessarily be enough for the Habs to climb this mountain. However, they can learn from the Laval Rocket’s success to rebuild a winning culture in the dressing room.
Rocketing up the Standings
The Rocket dominated the Canadian Division of the American Hockey League this season, finishing with a 23-9-4 record, nine points ahead of the second-place Manitoba Moose. Playing in a division with the four other Canadian AHL teams, the Rocket had a 9-3-2 record at home and a more impressive 13-2-1 away from the Bell Centre. At the end of March, Laval earned a 7-0-1 record during an eight-game road trip against the Moose and the Stockton Heat.
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The Rocket’s longest losing streak was two games, while their longest winning streak was six games. Over an 18-game stretch at the end of the season, they finished 16-1-1. The only reason they won’t be in the Calder Cup conversation is that COVID-19 suspended the AHL’s playoffs again. The Rocket had already captured the Frank Mathers Trophy as the Canadian Division’s best team by the time Carey Price and Brendan Gallagher arrived for their conditioning stint on May 17. Price played 40 minutes and Gallagher 17 against the Toronto Marlies in a 2-0 loss.
A Winning Mentality
The Rocket carried themselves with confidence throughout the AHL’s abridged 36-game season. It continued even as forwards Joe Blandisi, Ryan Poehling, Michael Pizzetta, and Joël Teasdale exited with season-ending injuries. It continued even as COVID-19 reached the dressing room, and after head coach Joël Bouchard only had 11 forwards available to play. Despite all of this, they finished second in the Eastern Conference, tied with the Hershey Bears with 50 points.
Jordan Weal and rookies Teasdale and Rafaël Harvey-Pinard led the scoring in Poehling’s absence, finishing with 24, 21, and 20 points, respectively. Weal, a former Canadien who played 49 games with the big club last season, said of the Rocket:
“Winning’s fun. The cohesion we have in the room makes it better. It’s fun to come to the rink.”Jordan Weal on the success of the Laval Rocket and what it means for team unity (from “Rocket Won’t Have Chance to Continue Stellar Season in AHL Playoffs,” Montréal Gazette, 07/05/2021).
Learning From Laval
The Rocket players bought into the program that Bouchard brought in, and he made sure to keep the players that fit with his vision and weeded out the ones that didn’t. He established a foundation and built upon it. He believes in his young players and puts them in a position to succeed. He says there’s a partnership between him and his players (From “Rocket’s Success Has Been Three Years in the Making for Coach Joël Bouchard.” Herb Zuckowsky, Montréal Gazette, 26/03/2021). The Canadiens have all these things at their disposal, and all they need to do is integrate the Rocket model into their own system. Habs’ head coach Dominique Ducharme had struggled to create a new culture to replace the one that left with Claude Julien’s dismissal.
Hockey analyst Dave Poulin discussed this at length shortly after Julien’s departure, stating clearly that the locker room culture would be the benchmark in determining whether or not the coaching change would work. The locker room is divided into three groups, Poulin says – the coach’s champions, the malcontents, and the “mixed personalities.” The latter group is the one that needs the most convincing for a culture change to be successful. It’s the players in the mixed group who transition between the other two groups easily. Poulin says these players usually have trouble adjusting to a new locker room culture. They’re usually the younger guys who need to adjust to a team where they’re no longer the best players (from “NHL locker-room dynamics will decide if the Canadiens’ coaching change pays off. Here’s How it Works,” Dave Poulin, Toronto Star, 28/02/2021).
Bouchard was able to harness this dynamic and channel it into the Rocket’s first-place finish. The Canadiens’ lack of consistency this season can in part be contributed to this. Ducharme and the Habs need to decide how to fit these players into the system permanently by giving them a defined role. Ducharme needs to place more faith in the Habs’ young guns. He needs to build team play around the new (and old) core.
The Rocket and the Canadiens shared the same rink this season. Players from the Rocket were repeatedly shuffled to and from the big club. The winning mentality is everywhere, the Habs just have to capitalize on it. To beat the Toronto Maple Leafs, they’ll have to.
Covering the Pittsburgh Penguins and other topics for The Hockey Writers. Also a big fan of the Chicago Cubs and progressive rock music.