The likelihood of playoff hockey for the Montreal Canadiens in 2020 has become distant, only a few days into the year. On a three-game losing slide — all three coming against Eastern Conference teams they’re supposed to be competing with — they finally returned to the Bell Centre to face the Tampa Bay Lightning on Thursday night.
The same team, of course, that handed the Tricolore the first loss of their current skid. Now that the team has added Brendan Gallagher (concussion) to their exhaustive injury list, the playoff chances are slim to none, but if they’re clinging to those slim chances, this is a game they absolutely needed to take.
It didn’t take long for things to start going south, as Steven Stamkos scored on a deflection less than one minute into the game. Thankfully, the Habs didn’t quit, and started putting some pressure of their own on the Lightning.
Just after a brutally ineffective power play attempt, Jeff Petry got the puck at the blue line and fired an absolute laser through everyone to tie the game at one.
But the tie was short lived. A miscommunicstion between Carey Price and Victor Mete led to Price giving the puck directly to Brayden Point, who found Nikita Kucherov in front of an empty net. He won’t usually miss those, and just like that it was 2-1 for the visitors.
And that, shockingly, was all she wrote. The Canadiens put a lot of pressure on Tampa for the remaining 40 minutes, but Andrei Vasilevskiy was brilliant whenever he needed to be. Though the home team put plenty of rubber towards the opposing net
This game marks the halfway point of the season, so there is still a lot of hockey left to play. But losing twice to Tampa, once to the Panthers, and once to the Hurricanes, in a span of four games, is a significant dagger to the heart of any remaining hope that this team could make the playoffs.
- Lukas Vejdemo had an eye-opening game. He didn’t find the scoresheet, but he did manage a 78.57% corsi-for, and when he was on the ice the Canadiens had an expected 87.21% goals-for. Injuries have allowed for him to get a shot at the NHL, and if last night is any indication, he seems intent on holding on to that spot. Obviously he did this against fourth-line competition — at home and with last change — but I was very impressed with his game, and I think he might make it hard for the team to send him back to Laval if he can replicate that regularly. We will have more on him coming later today.
- It was a great night for the fourth line in general. Vejdemo stood out, but I liked Dale Weise’s effort in his return to Montreal, and Nate Thompson anchored the trio impressively. They lost some time together when Weise put his cajones on display by fighting Patrick Maroon, but it was an impressive night for that trio when they were out there.
- Nick Suzuki led all Canadiens’ forwards in ice time with 20:43, and he was excellent insofar as the game allowed. The fact that the team has suffered countless injuries certainly helps to get him more minutes, but he has obviously earned Claude Julien’s trust. If there’s a silver lining to this four game losing streak, it’s that Suzuki is emerging as a legitimate top-six forward.
- Carey Price gave up the game-winning goal, and there’s no sugar coating how much that hurt. I’m in the camp of people who don’t think he should have gotten the Molson Cup for December — EOTP chose Max Domi, for the record — but I also think that some criticism of Price is going a bit beyond the pale. That being said, it comes with the territory of being on a $10.5 milliion AAV contract; you’re expected to not make those mistakes.
- And that mistake wouldn’t have mattered if the Habs were better at generating and capitalizing on scoring chances. Though they heavily outshot and out-attempted the lightning, according to Natural Stat Trick, they were outchanced if by a slim margin. Obviously a team playing from behind is bound to put some extra hopeful pucks on net, but the Habs were really just shooting whenever they could.
- It’s painful to watch a team capable of putting up five goals per night not be able to put up two or three in a vital game. The shot totals tell you to expect more out of the Habs, but they were underwhelming in terms of where those shots were coming from. When you’re facing a quality goaltender like Vasilevskiy, you have to make him work harder than that if you want your goaltender to have the requisite run support.
- The pre-game announcement that the Habs have added Marco Scandella to their defensive corps has to make you wonder who will be on the outs once they decide to incorporate him in the lineup. The smart money I think is on Brett Kulak. I don’t think he Kulak really deserves to have his spot taken — he played well enough for me last night — but the Habs didn’t get Scandella for him to sit, so someone has to and I think it’ll be Kulak.
- Speaking of trades, unless you’re of the opinion that Scandella alone can put the Habs back in the playoff picture, you have to think more are coming. Trading Mikey Reilly for an AHL player and a pick reads like shedding assets, but trading a different pick for Scandella reads as a move by a GM who thinks he’s improving his blue line for a playoff push. If the latter is true, I would be very surprised if more moves don’t come in the next few days.
- There’s only one night off, as the Habs will be back in action against the Penguins on Saturday. We may be seeing some new faces when that day arrives.