BROSSARD, Que. – When goaltender Carey Price was slashed hard by Stephane Veilleux during a 5-4 win over Minnesota this week, gritty winger Ryan White came out swinging at the Wild’s agitator.
It was a sign of the emphasis on tougher play that coach Randy Cunneyworth has tried to instill in the Montreal Canadiens as they play out the final weeks of a disappointing season.
The goaltender who was left to fend off aggressors on his own too often this season liked the response from his teammate.
“That’s something those guys believe in, that’s something we need,” Price said after the game. Those guys are warriors.
“Whitey’s a pretty tough character and he’ll stand up for anybody. I really appreciate that he’ll do that for me.”
Price had already demonstrated his gratitude by walking the length of the team’s dressing room to shake White’s hand.
“Any time, for him,” White said. “He’s our best player and we need him worrying about hockey and not (having opponents) taking liberties on him.”
As the Canadiens prepared for a Saturday night showdown with the Toronto Maple Leafs, White pointed to another Northeast Division rival, the Boston Bruins, as a team to emulate in protecting top players.
“The best example is you look at the Boston Bruins,” White said Friday. “You hit anyone on the Bruins and there are four or five guys getting in there. It’s a scrum every time and they’re not small guys.”
The return of White from abdominal surgery on Feb. 15 and the additions of Rene Bourque and Brad Staubitz have enhanced the last-place Canadiens’ physical game as they play out the season with only pride at stake.
White helped set the tone in the wacky shootout win over Minnesota on Thursday night when he fought twice in the first period, including a bout with Veilleux only 10 seconds in. Veilleux was trying to spark his team off the opening faceoff.
Known for being a fast-skating team that was short in size, the Canadiens are growing in stature. Centre David Desharnais, generously listed at five foot seven, reached 50 points against Minnesota. He is flanked on the team’s top line by power forwards Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole, both north of six feet.
Defenceman P.K. Subban gives as well as he gets on the ice and often finds himself in his opponents’ sights. He’s all for him and his teammates looking out for one another.
“It just goes to show that we’re not a team that’s going to back down,” Subban said. “We’re going to have toughness by committee and we have 22 players now that have bought into sticking up for one another.
“Ryan White and Brad Staubitz have done a great job in terms of sending a message to the opposing teams early on the game that we’re going to have that physical presence. And it helps.”
Staubitz distinguished himself in his Canadiens debut Tuesday at Tampa Bay.
Picked up on waivers from Minnesota on Monday, the six-foot-one, 210-pound right-wing got a minor for interference and a 10-minute misconduct for intervening with Lightning forward Ryan Malone on behalf of defenceman Alexei Emelin—from the bench. He also fought Pierre-Cedric Labrie later in the Canadiens’ 2-1 loss.
“It sends a message to the other team that you’re ready, willing, able, and the other teams know it,” Canadiens interim coach Randy Cunneyworth said. “So whether you use it or not, it doesn’t always matter.
“It’s there and it’s another skill that you have at your disposal. It’s nice to have. It’s nice to be able to go that route if you have to.”
Bourque, a six-foot-two, 205-pound forward, was acquired in the Jan. 12 trade that sent five-foot-nine left-wing Michael Cammalleri to Calgary.
“I think it just gives your skill players a little bit more room out there,” Bourque said. “Even our skill players, most of us have pretty good size, beside maybe David, but any time he’s in a scrum there’s going to be guys backing him up. Teams come together that way.”
Tomas Plekanec, who has found himself displaced this season by Desharnais as the Canadiens’ top centre, pointed out another dimension in which the team’s skill players are benefiting from the more aggressive play.
“Sometimes it creates more special-teams assignments,” Plekanec said. “Like (Thursday) night, there was a lot of penalty killing and a lot of power plays, so that’s where that skill comes in and that’s how the skill benefits from more physical play and more penalties being called.”
With a six-game skid threatening their playoff hopes, Toronto—which has one win in its last 11 games (1-9-1)—has enough of a battle on its hands without analysing the Canadiens.
“I’m going to play the same way no matter who I’m playing and who’s on their team,” Maple Leafs right-wing Mike Brown said. “I’m going to play a hard game and I’m going to play physical. If I need to fight, I’m going to fight. I’m going to play hard no matter what.”
NOTES: Canadiens forwards Scott Gomez and Aaron Palushaj each suffered eye injuries Thursday night. Cunneyworth said both are “doubtful” for Saturday night’s game.