Rebuilding Canadiens inspired by play, process of juggernaut Devils

MONTREAL — We doubt the Montreal Canadiens were thinking it as the New Jersey Devils picked them apart to record their 10th consecutive win and pull to within two points of owning the NHL’s best record, but maybe they’ll consider it when they review the tape.

These Devils, who came to the Bell Centre and entertained before leaving with a 5-1 win, look exactly like who the Canadiens are trying to become: A lightning-fast, in-your-face, detailed, deep, smart and exciting hockey team driven by young superstars and anchored by poised, big, physical two-way defencemen.

They came in as the best team Montreal has faced through its first 16 games, and they played up to their reputation, halting the Canadiens’ winning streak at three games.

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Jack Hughes played like the guy who was drafted first overall in 2019, scoring two goals and assisting on one for talented linemate Jesper Bratt. Devils captain Nico Hischier (another first-overall pick), along with Fabian Zetterlund and former Canadiens forward Tomas Tatar, dominated Montreal’s top line. And defencemen Dougie Hamilton and John Marino scored goals and stood tall in front of goaltender Vitek Vanecek, who made 15 first-period saves to push the wind into his team’s sails.

The Devils used it to push right by the Canadiens.

This isn’t who they were a year ago. It wasn’t even who they were to start this season.

But they’re a juggernaut now, and a team that looks precisely like the one the Canadiens are hoping to develop themselves into.

“I think they play very similar to what we’re trying to do,” said Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis. “They play on top of you. They use their speed offensively, but defensively they really get on top of you. There’s not much space. They push the pace, they’re good on the rush, they hit layers coming in.

“So, I think there’s a lot of things we’re preaching on our end. We just gotta keep getting better at it.”

It won’t happen overnight, even if the Canadiens are progressing faster than expected.

The Devils have missed the playoffs for four straight years. As they went through that turmoil, they traded several veterans to clear up space and collect future assets, made several high draft picks, and pounced on the open market with their savings over this past summer — signing two-time Stanley Cup champion Ondrej Palat away from the Tampa Bay Lightning, Vanecek away from the Washington Capitals and trading for veterans like Erik Haula and Marino.

That they look as good as they did on Tuesday without Palat (lower-body injury) and starting goaltender Mackenzie Blackwood (MCL sprain) is a testament to how they’ve been built and how bought in they are to coach Lindy Ruff’s demanding style of play.

They took beatings at the hands of more complete teams over the years and learned lessons from them, and that’s also made them who they are now.

“We got a lot more mature,” said Tatar after the game. “We had to trade pieces in the off-season, and we gained a lot more experience that we lacked last year. We gained experience going through last season. We look a lot more mature.”

At 13-3-0 on their season, the Devils look like one of the best teams in the NHL right now.

With a young, talented core, they’re poised to be one for a long time.

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Canadiens goaltender Jake Allen, who played as well as a goaltender can play while still allowing four goals — if it wasn’t for him, it could’ve been 10 — sees it.

He also sees his team — led by 23-year-old Nick Suzuki, 21-year-olds Cole Caufield and Kirby Dach and a defence currently comprised of four rookies — isn’t as far off as people might have assumed before this season started.

“Once you get them a few years under their belt, a little bit of confidence, a little bit of swagger, it can happen quick because it’s a youthful league,” Allen said. “And I think you’ll see that moving forward. Over the next 10 years, it’s going to get younger and younger and younger. The age is going to diminish, and I think that’s what you’re seeing with the Devils. Some good veterans there, too, and Hischier’s a good captain, but they had a couple years of pain for what looks like some long-term gain, and they’re a really good hockey club.”

“We’re very similar,” Allen continued. “I think we (noted) that in our pregame. Very similar team. They have four lines of full speed and really give you no time and space, and I think that’s probably something we’re trying to emulate and create. On our successful nights, that’s usually what we’re doing; we’re on top of teams, we’re playing fast, we’re giving teams no time and space. They sort of did that to us tonight.

“That’s a good lesson. I think that’s how we feel when we play other teams… so if we can take that out of this game, it’s one positive.”

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Repeating it with consistency will represent true growth down the line.

The Devils have it, and the Canadiens are aiming for it.

They played a strong first period but couldn’t quite keep up beyond that.

“It was a big test for us tonight,” said St. Louis. “I wouldn’t say we failed, but we didn’t achieve a high enough mark.”

But the Canadiens will study what the Devils did on Tuesday and use that to continue building their game.

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