There was plenty to throw away from this Montreal Canadiens season — stuff you couldn’t draw firm conclusions on with the team playing its final 25 games in just 44 days after an early-season coaching change and with several key players injured and no time to practise.
But there were two things you couldn’t turn away from, two things that should have alarm bells sounding back in Montreal right about now, with the Canadiens returning home tied 1-1 in their Stanley Cup Playoffs series with the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The first one — rarely being able to string two good performances together — cost the Canadiens Game 2, with the 5-1 score being perfectly indicative of how much worse they were than in their 2-1 win over the Leafs in Thursday’s Game 1. The second one is more disconcerting, because Saturday’s game was the first of three in four nights, with Games 3 and 4 scheduled for Monday and Tuesday at the Bell Centre, and the Canadiens struggled in those situations — particularly over the final six weeks of the season.
Again, heart-and-soul winger Brendan Gallagher (fractured thumb) was absent from all of those games. Starting goaltender Carey Price, who was sensational in Game 1 and was the only reason Game 2 wasn’t lost by a wider margin, missed the final month with a concussion, and Phillip Danault, Shea Weber, Paul Byron and Tomas Tatar all missed games while Tyler Toffoli, Eric Staal and Josh Anderson probably weren’t the only ones playing banged up.
Shortly after the regular season ended, Montreal’s Nick Suzuki put it in perspective.
“With the schedule and how many games we were playing and not having that many days (off), the back-to-backs were even tougher,” he said. “We want to play fast pace, and sometimes I thought we just didn’t have the legs under us to play the way we wanted…Some games, we just almost didn’t have our game.”
What about now?
It’s not as if those bumps and bruises completely healed in the eight days between the final regular-season game and the first one of these playoffs. And it’s safe to assume some new ones have formed, after 161 hits were exchanged through the first two of this series.
If you’re wondering which of these teams is fresher heading to Game 3, it’s probably the one that spent nearly half the second period of Saturday’s game on the power play.
“I was surprised by the way it was called tonight,” Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme said.
Gallagher started the parade to the penalty box with a stick shove through T.J. Brodie’s jaw. The motion alone caught official Eric Furlatt’s attention, as his arm sprung up so quick it might have blocked his view of Gallagher simultaneously taking Brodie’s stick in the teeth.
But the penalty was earned. So was Artturi Lehkonen’s slash, while the Canadiens were wrapping up killing off the Gallagher penalty.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s stick-shattering crosscheck to Morgan Rielly’s arm wasn’t debatable.
And boy, Ducharme certainly shouldn’t have been perplexed about the delay-of-game penalty assessed for challenging Rasmus Sandin’s power-play goal to make it 3-1 Leafs with 6:40 to play in the second period.
Ducharme said he, Canadiens director of legal affairs John Sedgwick (who previously worked for the NHL’s hockey operations department), video replay analyst Mario Leblanc and director of goaltending Sean Burke all felt Joe Thornton had sufficiently interfered with Price to have the goal reversed.
— Sportsnet (@Sportsnet) May 23, 2021
“We had an angle of it that we thought was even more conclusive,” said Ducharme. “I have the last call, always, but we were all in agreement we needed to challenge.”
It was practically unanimous among all other viewers that the Canadiens shouldn’t have, that putting the Leafs on a fourth consecutive power play — which was finally heating up after scoring on five of its last 77 opportunities prior to the game — would prove even more costly.
Price, who was at the lip of his crease as the puck was sliding by him, didn’t react at all in the moment to Thornton’s little stick lift. When he was asked three times about it afterwards, he repeated some version of, “I haven’t seen the replay, so I can’t really comment on it.”
Price having to watch it again in slow motion to determine whether or not it affected his ability to make the save said everything you needed to know about the decision to challenge the goal.
It didn’t cost the Canadiens another one, but it cost them energy — and another two minutes away from the offensive zone.
The Canadiens didn’t spend nearly enough time there to begin with, with just 23 shots on net — or just one less than the amount of minutes they were assessed in penalties.
At least Kotkaniemi had it going on. He scored at 7:57 of the first period after two excellent shifts in his first action of the series, replacing injured centre Jake Evans after being scratched in Game 1.
But the 20-year-old led the charge too few Canadiens followed.
Jason Spezza tied the game in the 13th minute of the first, after the Canadiens got caught spinning around their own zone, and the Leafs took over from there.
“The penalties cut our legs and took away momentum from us,” said Danault.
Before the Canadiens started taking them, he got caught staring at Auston Matthews, this year’s Rocket Richard Trophy winner, who beat him up the ice and scored his first goal of the series to make it 2-1 Leafs in the sixth minute of the second period.
Still, for all the mistakes made in that middle frame, the Canadiens we’re only down two goals going to the third.
Ducharme said after the game he liked the way they generated chances in the first and felt the penalties they took were the only reason they fell behind in the second, yet he opted to shuffle his deck in a perplexing way. The coach, who used every line combination imaginable during the regular season, at one point put Gallagher, Staal and Anderson together for the first time ever.
It might have even been by accident, with the lines mixed around again right after that.
“I felt that some guys were not going as well after all of that (in the second),” Ducharme said, “and I was just trying to spark something up.”
It was if he soaked the fuse in water before trying to light it, and the comeback bid all but died with Weber crosschecking Pierre Engvall in the eighth minute of the third period.
William Nylander gave Toronto a 4-1 lead while Weber looked on from the box, and the Canadiens were out-scored 1-0 at 6-on-5 over the final 6:30 of the game.
“We knew we were still in the game and still had a chance to come back,” said Price. “It didn’t work out for us tonight.”
The Maple Leafs said they’d win for John Tavares, who suffered a knee injury and a concussion in an accidental collision with Canadiens forward Corey Perry in Game 1, and they followed through in convincing fashion.
They proved over the regular season they could handle adversity, bouncing back from a 1-6 stretch in March. They also proved to be the North Division’s most consistent team, and did well enough in back-to-back situations (7-7).
The Canadiens went 9-15 in back-to-back games, which tells you how much more taxing their schedule was but also how well they handled what they’re about to face next.
“We’ve done it so many times this year and there’s no excuse on that,” said Danault. “We have to bring our best every single game —
especially in the playoffs.”