Losing that game in Raleigh Sunday night was disappointing but all things considered this was a pretty good week for the Canadiens. Playing four games in six nights they still pocketed seven of eight points and moved back into the second wild card berth. It’s hard to criticize that.
It’s pretty clear the Canadiens paid the price for the week’s heavy work load, noticably in the last half of the first period and then in the third period when they lost their legs.
That lost point in the standings may be critical at season’s end but it’s hard to criticize the Canadiens commitment.
The Canadiens offense pretty much had their way against the Buffalo Sabres Saturday night. The Carolina Hurricanes aren’t the Buffalo Sabres. As a matter of fact, since the New Year the Hurricanes have been one of the best teams in the Eastern Conference.
So, with that in mind, consider that the single point the Canadiens pulled out of Raleigh in Sunday night’s overtime loss could be considered a bonus.
The Hurricanes dominated the Canadiens in shots on goal, scoring chances, high danger chances and territorially at 63%. Reality is, they are a better team than the Canadiens and, had they started their season the way most of us thought they would, they might be looking for the lead in the Metropolitan Division rather than scuffling around in wild card territory.
The Hurricanes are a better constructed and balanced team than the Canadiens in every area except goaltending. Carey Price singlehandedly got the Canadiens to the overtime. The Hurricanes poured 21 shots on him in the first period and another 14 in the third period. It was the 38th shot, a deflection off Jordie Benn finally beat him with just over five minutes remaining. Price is the sole reason there is any discussion of a playoff berth in Montreal. Over his last seven starts he is 5-2-1 with a 1.50 goals-against average and his save percentage is .943. Every one of the six teams the Canadiens face in the season’s final thirteen days knows they will have to deal with a clearly dialed in Price at the season’s most critical stage..
The general reaction to the trade deadline arrivals of Nate Thompson and Jordan Weal ranked somewhere between ho and hum, probably even in the Canadiens dressing room. That was then. They, along with Paul Byron made up the best forward line against the Hurricanes. And not by just a little bit. It was Thompson’s forecheck that pried the puck loose for Byron and the Canadiens first period goal. It’s hard to say who is the most influential of the three. Thompson has been around a lot and knows how to deal with the current pressure. He now has points in four consecutive games. Weal also has shown some offensive savvy and Byron is Byron. That was Byron’s 15th goal in only 59 games which is on-pace for a 20-goal when-healthy season.
When does a third line be demoted to fourth line status? There were signs over the last month that Jesperi Kotkaniemi was paying for his first demanding North American hockey schedule. For some reason, Joel Armia‘s effectiveness has also gone south. Whatever hope of them regaining form seems to have disappeared with the presence of Jonathan Drouin on their line. Again they were invisible for the most part. Under the circumstances, Claude Julien desperately needed to be able to roll four lines against the Hurricanes, especially protecting a one-goal lead. After a particularly egregious giveaway by Drouin forced Price to make outstanding back to back saves on Calvin De Haan and Justin Williams midway through the period, Julien had seen enough. The line didn’t see the ice the final eleven minutes of the game.
ALSO WORTH MENTIONING
….Another good night for the Canadiens penalty killers (Thompson has been a big part of that). In six minutes of power play time the Hurricanes were credited with one shot on goal.
….Price stopped 19 of the Hurricanes 20 high danger scoring chances including nine in the first period and eight of nine in the third.
….Through the first 14:34 of the second period the Canadiens prevented the Hurricanes from getting a shot on goal but failed to score (Kotkaniemi and Weal had good chances and Danault missed on an open net backhand). In the final three minutes of the period the Canadiens started to fade and were outshot 15-4 the rest of the way.
….Until weariness set in through the game’s final 25 minutes I thought Shea Weber and Victor Mete had good nights. Mete’s decision-making has been excellent the last week. While still the most-used pairing, Julien was once again able to keep their five-on-five ice time below twenty minutes, which is critical at this time of the season.
Consider Sunday’s game at Carolina as the opening game of a seven game playoff series. A seven-game play-in for the right to go to the post season is an accurate description of what the Canadiens face over the next 13 nights but, unlike a regular playoff series, they will face seven different opponents.
They will host Florida Tuesday night and then go to Columbus Thursday in a game that would decide the playoff hopes for both teams. Right now Columbus trails the Canadiens by two points with a game in hand. After Columbus it’s that brutal season-ending schedule against Winnipeg (away), Tampa (home), Washington (away) and Toronto (home).
Conservatively, the Canadiens need to collect seven of a possible twelve points to reach the projected 95 point Eastern Conference playoff qualifying cutoff point.
The Blue Jackets and Hurricanes each have critical games in hand over the Canadiens.
After ending their three game losing streak at Vancouver Sunday night Columbus returns home to face the Islanders Tuesday and then the Canadiens on Thursday. Columbus has lost four of their last five games on the road and they will be away from home for five of their last seven games. Three of those
are against Buffalo, the Rangers and Ottawa. They also play Nashville on the road and their lone remaining home game after they face the Canadeiens Thursday will be against Boston).
Carolina’s next two games are home and home against Washington. They have Pittsburgh and Toronto on the road plus lesser matchups against Philadelphia home and away and a home game against the Devils.