Canadiens will be inspired by virtual crowd at home opener Thursday

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The Montreal Canadiens return to Bell Centre for their home opener against the Calgary Flames on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, TSN2, RDS, SNW) 324 days since their last game in the building, and they say they’ll feel the support of an arena that will be full at least in spirit.

In normal times, the 21,302-seat building would be packed with fans thrilled by a 4-0-2 start that has the Canadiens second in the Scotia North Division, two points behind the 6-2-0 Toronto Maple Leafs. Of course, these aren’t normal times, so fans will be cheering from a safe distance, the premium sections of the lower bowl covered by red and blue tarps, thousands of seats above them without customers.

Still, coach Claude Julien said the Canadiens will be buoyed by their virtual crowd. They will appreciate that against the Flames (2-2-1) they’ll offer a hockey respite for a Quebec population tightly governed by COVID-19 crowd-limiting restrictions and under a province-wide 8 p.m. to 5 a.m. ET curfew.

“We embrace the opportunity to maybe help with the mental health of a lot of people,” Julien said this week, the Canadiens returning to practice Tuesday not at its suburban training facility but downtown at Bell Centre, new players having the chance to familiarize themselves with their home arena.

“(The public) is locked into their homes, they can’t do much. And yet hockey games excite them, give them joy. We have an opportunity to do that. That’s something that doesn’t go unnoticed on our part. … With everything that’s been going on (with the pandemic), how some people have been so unfortunate, have either lost their jobs or lost loved ones, we consider ourselves to be lucky doing what we’re doing.”

Forward Tyler Toffoli, who named the NHL First Star of the Week on Monday after scoring eight points (five goals, three assists) in four games, said he’s loving every minute with his new team, eager to play his first home game at Bell Centre.

“The only thing that would make it better is if we could have fans for the home opener,” said Toffoli, who agreed to a four-year contract with the Canadiens on Oct. 12. “It’s unfortunate, but that’s just the way things are right now. We’re just excited to be playing back at home.”

Julien said the Canadiens will feel their fans behind them even in an empty arena, not unlike how they did in six road games played in Toronto, Edmonton and Vancouver.

“I think the fans are excited to watch our team,” he said. “It’s up to us to have success at home. We struggled here last season (14-17-6). It’s a good challenge for us to have a good record on home ice and continue to give the fans enjoyment and enthusiasm.”

The Canadiens have offered both thus far, refaced during the offseason with the addition of Toffoli, forwards Josh Anderson, Corey Perry and Michael Frolik, defensemen Joel Edmundson and Alexander Romanov and goalie Jake Allen.

“With no fans in the building, it’s going to be a little bit different,” Anderson said, suggesting that even without a crowd, knowing a rink’s unique layout and the feel of its boards offers home-ice advantage. 

Anderson has scored four points (three goals, one assist) during his first season with Montreal after he was traded by the Columbus Blue Jackets on Oct. 6 and agreed to a seven-year contract two days later. He said he’ll face the Flames “like just another game” even as he gets used to the Canadiens’ dressing room, which he saw for the first time on Monday.

“It was pretty exciting just to see the whole arena,” Anderson said. “Seeing the history in that room was pretty special. It kind of takes your breath away.”

Six games are a small sample size, but the Canadiens’ performance on the road to open the season has been a bit of a revelation, even if it’s very early.

“It’s six games in, we’ve got 50 more to go,” he said. “There’s going to be challenges along the way. We have to be mentally ready to be able to face all this adversity we’re going to have along the way, doing it the right way and being able to overcome those things. That’s going to help us grow to become an even better team.”

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