Eller had suggested that the Oilers “play a little bit like a junior team,” and oh my, did Edmonton coach Dallas Eakins and his team get some mileage out of that.
Knowing the Habs 24-year-old centreman, he wasn’t speaking at his team’s morning skate to insult the visitor; he wasn’t ridiculing the organization or making fun of the 2-6-1 record it brought to the Bell Centre.
In his own pragmatic way, I’m guessing Eller was offering his own clinical assessment of the Oilers.
Eller is not the type to jab a pointed stick in an opponent.
But that loud bang you heard in the Bell Centre?
That was the sound of a backfire.
The Oilers, Eller had added in the morning, “take a lot of risks, a lot of chances. They’re a little all over the place. There’s not a lot of structure always in their game. It can really be anything. You don’t know.
“I prefer a little more structured game,” he said. “Then again, I don’t mind high-scoring games, too.”
Eller might not have been entirely wrong after the first period, the Canadiens up 2-0. But then the Habs’ foot slipped off the gas pedal, perhaps knocked off it by a riled, energized Oilers lineup that, like Montreal’s, was depleted by injuries.
And just before the Canadiens found a gearbox full of neutral, they discovered the one marked with R. As in reverse.
Four unanswered goals by Edmonton stunned the Bell crowd and sent the Canadiens to their second straight loss in the third game of this five-game homestand. Captain Brian Gionta’s goal scored with three seconds left almost stopped the fans who were flooding the exits.
Eakins emerged into the cameras and notebooks not long afterward and before he was even asked a question, he began, clearly insulted by Eller’s remarks:
“It’s games like that that you don’t even really need to go play,” the coach said. “When you have a player like Lars Eller running his mouth before the game, it makes for great banter in our dressing room and great motivation. We thank Lars Eller for his comments before the game.”
In this high-tech age, I asked Eakins, is there such a thing as “bulletin-board material,” one team digitally clipping another’s remarks to use as fuel?
“Absolutely. Absolutely,” he replied. “You’ve got some young player who’s trying to get his feet wet calling an organization a junior team. People take notice.
“I knew it was going to turn. It’s just one of those things. That is a total hockey-god thing and I’m sure that young man has learned his lesson and I highly doubt you’ll ever see anything like that out of his mouth again.”
Canadiens coach Michel Therrien suggested in his post-game briefing that Eller’s words had been “inappropriate,” and perhaps needlessly added that his young centre has learned from them.
The Oilers, Eakins said, came into their room after the first period, outshot 14-7 and beaten 83-17 per cent in the faceoff circle, and “regrouped a little bit.
“I thought we needed to bring our compete level up a little higher,” he said. “I thought we needed to get into the fight a bit more and after that first intermission our players certainly dug their heels in. We had some big performances through those last two periods.”
Edmonton was wrapping up a six-game road trip and could either have mailed this one in after 20 bad minutes and gone home to hit the reset button, or they could have risen off the mat.
They chose the latter route.
“That’s a large win for our club to be able to come back in this building, this is an amazing building to play in,” Eakins said. “I’ve always loved to come in here and experience the games, there’s such an electricity and to be able to come back after being down and win is a great, great job by our players.”
This might have been the most controversial use of the “junior” word related to the Canadiens since Toronto Maple Leafs coach Punch Imlach sneered in 1967 that his team wouldn’t be beaten by a Junior B goaltender, a slap at rookie netminder Rogie Vachon.
Imlach ultimately would be proven correct, his Leafs beating the Habs for the Stanley Cup in a six-game final. And Imlach and Canadiens counterpart Toe Blake were never above headline-worthy gamesmanship to try to give their side an edge.
There was none of that in Eller on Tuesday. But his few syllables put a lightning bolt up a delicate part of the Oilers.
“They definitely pushed back and adjusted,” Gionta would say. “But it’s a letdown on us. We can’t expect to play one period and expect to come out with a win. … We got back on our heels.”
Among those in attendance Tuesday was former Canadiens defenceman Roman Hamrlik, the 20-year NHL veteran who retired from hockey on Monday.
Hamrlik, who also played for the Oilers during his seven-team, 1,395-game career, was recognized on the scoreboard during a second-period TV timeout in a nice Habs touch and received a prolonged ovation, many rising to their feet, when he was shown with his Montreal girlfriend, Cynthia.
The Canadiens’ five-game homestand won’t get any easier with two more matches this week against teams from California.
It will be an emotion-charged tilt Thursday when Anaheim comes to town, the Ducks’ road show this season being mostly the Teemu Selanne Farewell Tour.
But in Montreal the game will be much more about the return of Saku Koivu, the beloved former captain who could be making his final visit here with an NHL team.
Expect there to be many generous words spoken by the Canadiens about the two Finns and their club — and not a single jab with a pointed stick — as that faceoff nears.
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