Canadiens’ unfazed young defence making key contributions to early-season wins

It’s an instant Kaiden Guhle will remember forever, manufactured just over 25 minutes of gameplay after one he needed to forget.

A period before this impressive 20-year-old defenceman curled his way down to a quiet spot in the offensive zone, set himself up and uncorked a blistering one-timer to the top of Eric Comrie’s net for his first NHL goal, he was on the other end of one he’d have liked to have prevented.

Just 31 seconds into the second period, Guhle got caught flatfooted, swiping—and missing—at a puck Jeff Skinner took hold of and buried to tie Thursday’s game between the Montreal Canadiens and Buffalo Sabres at 1-1.

It was a rare slip from the rookie, and he easily could’ve gotten bogged down thinking about it for the rest of the night.

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But the young Canadien filed it away immediately and continued playing the effective game he’s displayed since debuting in the NHL in early October.

At 6:51 of the third period Guhle was pumping his fist and celebrating the first of what will surely be many goals he scores at this level. And by the end of regulation, with his team prevailing 3-2 for its first road win of the season, Guhle was sitting with a plus-2 rating, two shots on net, three attempts, three blocked shots and a big smile on his face.

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Having a short memory is a vital asset at his position. Guhle put it to good use on this night—just like he did in an absolutely dominant performance in a win against Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins a week-and-a-half ago. The young blueliner had four giveaways and said afterwards, “It’s a game of mistakes, and you have to just forget about them right away and move on.”

This is common strength on Montreal’s young blue line, and a big part of the reason no one playing there looks out of place at the moment, despite almost all of these defenceman needing to play bigger roles than they were initially slated to before veterans Mike Matheson and Joel Edmundson got hurt.

Think about Arber Xhekaj, who had a rough first period but rebounded exceptionally well in what ended up being a 5-2 loss to the Minnesota Wild this past Tuesday. Think about 22-year-old Jordan Harris, who has made mistakes here and there but been the Canadiens’ steadiest presence aside from veteran David Savard, who had two assists and added four more blocked shots Thursday to bring him to an NHL-leading 37 on the season.

Even 25-year-old Johnathan Kovacevic—who was claimed off waivers by the Canadiens from the Winnipeg Jets and came over towards the end of training camp with just four NHL games under his belt—is exhibiting this all-important resilience. He had six giveaways in the loss to Minnesota Tuesday and had zero against the Sabres, playing a steady game at both ends of the rink to help his team notch this win.

If you’re looking for a reason the Canadiens are a surprising 4-4-0 on the season, what’s happened on defence is a pretty good one.

Of course, what happened behind the defence on Thursday—and what’s happened behind it on all other nights the Canadiens have played this season—is the main reason.

Goaltender Samuel Montembeault wrapped this win over the Sabres by sliding across his crease to get his pad on a shot from the NHL’s hottest defenceman, Rasmus Dahlin. It was his 43rd save of the game, and he made so many other tough ones look just as easy.

Jake Allen has done the same through his five starts, helping the Canadiens overcome a sputtering offence yet to produce to the level expected of it.

Montembeault has two wins in three starts now and he’s sporting a .931 save percentage thanks to his heroics on Tuesday.

“He did his job, and that’s important,” Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis told reporters in Buffalo after the win. “When he gets a start, he has to give us the best chance to win, and he did that tonight.”

The 25-year-old struggled to do it in his 38 appearances with the Canadiens last season, notching just eight wins.

But Montembeault came up huge against the Sabres after beating the Penguins last Monday.

That was when Guhle first served notice the mistakes won’t rattle him.

When he looks back on Thursday’s game, the one he made on Skinner will be impossible to conjure. And when he stares at the game sheet, he’ll see his name between Brendan Gallagher’s and Josh Anderson’s as one of the goal scorers in a big Canadiens win on the road.

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