The Montreal Canadiens went into their game versus the Chicago Blackhawks knowing they had to give everything they had to come away with a win. You could say a lack of effort has been an issue in previous games, but last night that wasn’t the problem for a team that finished the night with 48 shots.
Playing one of the hottest teams in the NHL, defensive lapses didn’t cripple them either, despite some concerning shifts from Shea Weber that made it clear he’s performing at significantly reduced efficiency. They allowed some chances, but the two goals the Blackhawks scored didn’t make for an insurmountable lead, expecially given that the visitors had allowed the most goals in the NHL this season.
But, as has been the case on more than a few occasions this season, the goal-scoring didn’t follow the possession. There are plenty of forwards on the team capable of strong supporting offence at the top level, but not of a calibre to place them among the top scoring teams in the league.
It was apparent at the beginning of the season that the Canadiens were going to have to work for everything they got, and it’s been rather amazing just how much that hard work was able to gain. On February 9, they went into a game versus the Toronto Maple Leafs with a chance at moving into the second seed in what was, at the time, a tightly contested Atlantic Division race. And they looked very good in that game, unable to get the win they wanted, but forcing the pre-season Stanley Cup favourite to overtime.
After that game, they headed out on the road, and against the Nashville Predators, the consistent performance that had defined their season was missing in the first period, leading to a heartbreaking loss. At the time it seemed like they just hadn’t given themselves the chance to win by putting in a full effort, but as the season went along, long lapses of a period or more became quite common for the team: a squandered lead in another game versus Toronto; a poor start in a loss to the Devils; not showing up to a key game versus the Penguins; getting buried by the lottery-hopeful Ducks, and, most recently; the lacklustre effort in New York.
With a team full of players known for the hard work that got them to the NHL, the poor performances were both tough to take and difficult to understand. Team leaders have called out the level of play after many of the latest losses, with Andrew Shaw being the most vocal after the game versus the Islanders. But none of those appeals to character and will amounted to a winning streak of more that two games since that second-place game five weeks ago.
The hope was that the desire of the players on a team missing key elements of a contender would be enough to drag them through a season. That, along with the return to form of Carey Price to fill in some of the gaps, had them doing just that to the surprise of most pundits around the league.
Yet the increased effort level needed to play the game that way appears to have taken its toll, getting them to about Game 57, but not much farther. They’re running on fumes over the final quarter of the season, still able to pull out the odd win, but not enough to outwork teams night in and night out.
Montreal has now lost five of its last seven games, falling not just out of a wild-card spot, but now three points back, and with a deficit of four regulation and overtime wins (the first tiebreaker should two teams be tied in points) to the eighth-place Columbus Blue Jackets. That means Montreal probably can’t just be tied for the final spot, but needs to finish with more points. Even if Columbus were to go 5-5-0 to end the season, Montreal has to win seven of their final 10 games, and that’s looking unrealistic.
At the beginning of the season, having traded away two of the top goal-scorers in recent Habs history, a playoff berth was regarded as a bonus in a year the focus shifted more to the future. They’re not completely out of the race yet (and it’s not in the nature of any of the players on the roster to give up), but it appears that bonus won’t be coming.
However, any frustration now felt at missing out right at the tail end of the year is only possible because of how well the team played this year, and that’s. With a lot clearly still to do to be among the top clubs in the league, it’s something very positive for all involved to build upon.