It was the make-or-break game for the Montreal Canadiens’ California road trip on Friday night. With a win over the Ducks in Anaheim, the Habs could leave the Golden State with four of a possible six points.
The crisis, however, was over as both Carey Price and Jesperi Kotkaniemi were back in the lineup after getting rest in San Jose.
Against one of the worst teams in the league with nothing to play for and their season over, the Habs put in a stinker.
No one sticks out as being a horse in any way — it was abysmal back to front. In the back, Carey Price didn’t have a strong game at all looking for win number 315 to pass Jacques Plante for the career wins record on the Canadiens.
In front of Price, meanwhile, the defence offered no protection at all as Ducks scorers who have struggled all season enjoyed a rare productive night. The offence, as well, won no puck battles, didn’t control their gap, and offered next to zero resistance.
Time to get out of California with your head down as per usual. It just never goes well there.
WATCH BELOW: Call of the Wilde — Habs wrapping up California road trip
In back-to-back games, the Habs had nothing to offer.
They used all their energy in San Jose where they outplayed the Sharks only to lose from bad goaltending. One night later, they were outplayed badly by one of the worst teams in the league.
Fatigue is the great equalizer in this league. The Ducks rested had a lot of jump. The Habs with three games in four nights had no jump at all. Look at Max Domi, for example, who had a powerful engine. His legs are usually churning. He’s carrying the puck through the neutral zone and into the offensive zone with skill. He’s a player that is noticeable all the time.
Not in this one. He was non-existent.
Or look at Brendan Gallagher. He was also not a presence and he is always a presence. They all had nothing. It’s an 82-game season, though, and there are going to be nights like this — nights when you have to forget about it, and head home for the next one.
This one was only 2-1 when Jordie Benn was beaten off the face-off with the Ducks already on the power play. Benn scraped his stick across the face of a Ducks player, resulting in a four-minute penalty. Anaheim scored on that power play and the game was out of reach at 3-1.
It was the biggest error in a game where Benn had many of them.
The Habs played an excellent stretch of defense, allowing few goals per game when they had Mete-Weber, Reilly-Petry and Kulak-Benn in a very good rhythm. For some reason, the Habs brass felt the need to mess with what was working. Mike Reilly got in the dog house, sent to the press box for a carousel of changes that didn’t work. The apple cart was upset. The reliable defense was gone, the rhythm ruined. Benn played second pair some nights where he couldn’t handle the ice time and the match-ups. Everything had changed: five goals allowed against the Penguins, five goals allowed against the Sharks, eight goals allowed against the Ducks.
The Habs need better blue liners and they also need the coach to not tinker with what does not need tinkering.
WATCH: Big weekend for the Habs
The Habs also need a power play.
They got the goal from Shea Weber in this one on a bomb from the point, but these points that follow all remain. The club was 1 for its last 29 in the last 13 games before Weber’s goal. If the Habs could have gotten just one goal on the power play in so many games this season, it would mean when they lost 2-1 or 3-2, that they would have tied it, and had a chance for a win in overtime. Imagine how many points on the season that the club lost by one goal and their power play pulled an 0-for-4 or an 0-for-5 on the night. Just one goal every now and then and they they would be in the company of the Maple Leafs in the standings and not fighting for a wild card spot.
The Habs are now 31st in the league on the power play — simply abysmal. They have so many problems on this power play that have been digested all season: they don’t shoot enough, don’t work hard enough, don’t move well enough, don’t screen well, don’t enter the zone well, don’t have a QB puck mover, don’t have a right side shot.
One answer will come next season, perhaps. Nick Suzuki in Guelph is a force when he opens up on the right side with some options. He’s not Alex Galchenyuk, who has a superb one timer that is missed. Suzuki does have a great shot from the right side, though, and he has outstanding vision when he doesn’t shoot.
Another answer comes in personnel. It’s amazing, really, that the leading scorer on the team with 30 goals, Brendan Gallagher, can’t get on the power play regularly, though he did get a look with the extra man when Weber scored. Gallagher is third in the league in 5-on-5 goals. Gallagher could be up to 35 goals this season or more, if they gave him a regular look with the extra man. It’s impossible to think what the worst power play in the league has to lose by not making Gallagher a regular.
A look at the Habs schedule in January would have left an objective observer with the thought that if Montreal can get through that trip in California still in a playoff spot, they’ll have a good chance to make it. Just get through California still in good shape. That’s it.
They’ve done that. It’s tenuous, but they are in a playoff position. Four teams are vying for three spots. The Penguins are the only one with 81 points. The Habs got a big favour from the Winnipeg Jets, who beat the Hurricanes 8-1, leaving Carolina still with 79 points. The Habs also have 79 points to occupy the final playoff berth only two points ahed of the Blue Jackets, but Columbus holds two games in hand, so it’s extremely close. The Jackets’ next game is Saturday night hosting Pittsburgh with Habs fans cheering for the Penguins, and no overtime.
The Habs don’t play until Tuesday, when they host the Detroit Red Wings at the Bell Centre.
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