Just one more point of math to take care of for the Montreal Canadiens.
That playoff spot has eluded them for the last three games — two losses in Toronto and one in Ottawa. Now, the Canadiens are running out of chances to take care of this without any help from either Vancouver or Calgary.
Taking on the Edmonton Oilers at the Bell Centre, Montreal needed only an overtime loss to lock up a playoff berth, and that’s exactly what they got with a 4-3 loss.
The Canadiens have made the playoffs.
It’s often been explained in Call of the Wilde in the past five weeks that this team is exhausted. They’ve played four games every seven nights and have played 25 games in 41 days. They’re on a run of seven games in 11 days right now.
It’s an unheard of total, and the result is the club limping to the finish line.
More proof of their exhaustion is they bring in a new player and he looks like he’s Guy Lafleur for a night compared to the rest of them. Paul Byron was an absolute bumblebee in this contest. He had so much energy. He was flying everywhere all over the ice.
Byron with Jake Evans and Artturi Lehkonen was easily the best line on the night — they were actually the only good line on the night at all. Evans scored a gorgeous goal in the first period. Byron scored a beauty in the second period. Lehkonen scored the tying goal in the third period.
Everyone was trying extremely hard, but only this line had any energy to get anything done. That’s the difference between fatigue and no fatigue. Your heart is willing and your spirit wants it, but your legs say no.
It was another trading deadline of subtraction by addition for Canadiens General Manager Marc Bergevin. The GM acquired three players for the stretch run and he’s weakened the club with the acquisitions. It doesn’t have to be this bad, but it appears that the head coach, Dominique Ducharme, is mandated to play the GM’s new players, so it is this bad.
That’s the only way to explain that two of the three players, no matter how little they do, have played every single game since they were acquired.
Eric Staal has played 21 games for the Canadiens so far. He has not gotten a boost to his play from leaving Buffalo. In fact, his records are almost identical between his two clubs. In Buffalo, Staal, in 32 games, got three goals. In Montreal in 21 games, he has two goals. He actually did much better in upstate New York in assists with seven while getting just one in Montreal so far.
In Buffalo, he was a minus 20. In Montreal, a minus 10. Despite some of the messiest stats possible, Staal plays every shift.
Jon Merrill was another acquisition. He was doing far better in Detroit than he is in Montreal. He was on the ice for two goals against in the first period, then another in the second, to bring his total to minus 12 in 12 games. Merrill was actually a plus two in Detroit, serving as the Red Wings’ best defender in expected goals percentage. He’s struggling horribly in Montreal. Still, he, too, plays every shift.
The final player, Erik Gustafsson, has played four games with two assists. He’s a puck-moving defenceman, so he found the doghouse quickly. That’s where Alexander Romanov belongs as well, as he is playing is worst hockey of the year, backing into Jake Allen far too often. Romanov is giving up his gap too easily, setting up easy-to-execute plays in front of him.
To get Merrill and Gustafsson, Bergevin put a 22-year-old puck-moving defenceman on the waiver wire. The Ottawa Senators were happy to pick up Victor Mete; they’ve been extremely impressed with his game so far. With Mete, the Senators have the third best record in the North Division.
The Canadiens’ defence is in disarray at the moment. Without Philip Danault, but with Eric Staal and a struggling Jesperi Kotkaniemi, the centre position is also in disarray. It’s not going well right now, but rested and healthy in the playoffs, a lot can go much better.
One of the popular refrains these days is Jake Allen is showing why he is a backup goalie because he is looking tired. The thought is he can’t stay consistent if he assumes the role of a number one. This may be true, but we really can’t say that right now. Here’s why: He’s far busier than a number one. He’s being asked to do what no number one would be asked to do anywhere.
Allen has played 17 of the last 21 games for the Canadiens. Over a full campaign, this is 68 games in net. Only Martin Brodeur in the modern era has been able to handle that type of workload and not suffer. So before you say Allen can’t handle the number one duties, let’s stop to wonder how he actually would do if that workload was 50 games over a full year, which would be 12 out of 21 — not 17.
The problem is obvious here. The third goalie wasn’t reliable yet in Cayden Primeau, and far too much was asked of Allen when Carey Price went down. Perhaps Allen would have handled his duties just fine, if he was not overtaxed playing a percentage of games that every goalie would have said was too much.
The Canadiens could surprise in the playoffs. They’re destined to play the Toronto Maple Leafs and everyone will pencil in that series as an easy Leafs victory. However, Montreal may be able to take advantage of a much healthier and more rested team than the one that Toronto has handily beaten lately.
With 22 games in 37 days after the COVID-19-induced break, the Canadiens have been no match for Toronto. But this may be deceiving when the playoffs start.
Montreal will get a break before the playoffs start and that will take care of the fatigue issue, so for the first time in two months, both teams will be on an even footing in that area.
The Canadiens will also get a lot healthier for the playoff first round. Ducharme indicated on Monday that the Habs will get all of their healthy players back for game one. The list includes Carey Price, Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher and Philip Danault. Those four players aren’t exactly the extras on the club.
This is not to say that a rested and healthy Canadiens team is as good as the Maple Leafs, but it is to say that there is reason to believe that it will be closer than it has been.
The wild card for sure is Carey Price. He brought a .909 to the regular season campaign last year, and then after the COVID-19 break, in the bubble, he turned in a .936. Any change resembling that and the Maple Leafs could be in for a surprise.
It could be interesting and it sure will be exciting for the first Leafs-Canadiens series since 1979.
Brian Wilde, a Montreal-based sports writer, brings you Call of the Wilde on globalnews.ca after each Canadiens game.