MONTREAL — Max Pacioretty stood with his hands at his hips, wearing a defiant look on his face as he stared down reporters and said his team had to be disappointed about a blown opportunity.
There’s no doubt about it.
His Montreal Canadiens let two precious one-goal leads — and a myriad of opportunities to ice a pivotal game in their series against the New York Rangers — slip away. As a result, they lost 3-2 in overtime and are now staring elimination from the Stanley Cup Playoffs in the face.
“Nothing really we can do about this now,” said Pacioretty. “There were opportunities to close out the game…
“We have an opportunity now to show what we have in this room. We’ve come back a lot this year, and hopefully we can do it in this series as well.”
History — according to Elias Sports Bureau — says the Canadiens have a 21.9 per cent chance of doing it.
In order to pull through in Game 6, they’re going to have to forget about how they held a 2-1 series lead after dominant games that followed a series-opening loss, and they’ll definitely have to erase the missed opportunities in Game 5 from their memories.
There was much promise in the air for the home side at the Bell Centre on Thursday.
In a first period played at breakneck speed, the Canadiens scored two goals, had 15 shots on net, threw 25 hits and won 65 per cent of the faceoffs.
When Artturi Lehkonen drove in on the forecheck in the eighth minute of the frame, the fans moved to the edge of their seats. When he trapped Marc Staal, stole the puck from him, and cycled the play out to Nathan Beaulieu, they rose. And when Lehkonen corralled Beaulieu’s point shot, beat Staal to the outside, and jammed the wraparound through Henrik Lundqvist’s pads to open the scoring, they nearly broke through the sound barrier.
A short-handed goal by Jesper Fast scored just under four minutes later quieted the crowd for 24 seconds.
Then Brendan Gallagher scored on the power play to restore the lead, and the volume in the building got cranked back up to 11.
Still, an opportunity missed by Pacioretty — who had come into the game with just one assist to show for his efforts through the first four — felt like a moment that would require review if the Rangers would be able to creep back into the game at a later point. Ryan McDonagh was sprawled out on the ice in front of him, holding his head and writhing in pain, and Pacioretty had a wide-open lane to the slot and a chance to uncork his weapon of choice: the wrist shot that has been responsible for so many of the 219 goals he’s scored in this league.
He got all of it, and so did Lundqvist.
The Canadiens didn’t sulk about it, they came out to work in the second period, pushing the play towards New York’s end and limiting the Rangers to just two shots on net through the first 12 minutes.
But then the tide turned.
“We didn’t play a good second half of the game,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “We weren’t as hungry on the attack as we were at the start when we were throwing more pucks at the net and getting there. When we were able to do that, we were winning our battles along the boards. Then we started losing those battles and they took over. You have to continue to play for 60 minutes the way we played in the first half. Tonight we played maybe 30 minutes, it wasn’t the type of game we needed to play.”
Even still, the chance to go back to New York with a 3-2 series was ripe throughout.
From Pacioretty’s early miss in the slot, to the two blown power plays in the opening five minutes of the second period, to the short-handed 2-on-1 chance Phillip Danault rang off the post in the third period, to Pacioretty’s clean breakaway opportunity as time ticked away in regulation time; the Canadiens had the bullet in the chamber and ended up shooting themselves with it.
“It’s like everything else, you’ve got to find ways,” said Julien. “Whether it’s power play, 5-on-5, we’ve got to find ways to win games.”
The Rangers did.
Brady Skjei finished off the only good chance his team had in the second period to tie the game 2-2. And Chris Kreider took advantage of his team’s momentum in overtime — they outshot the Canadiens 10-3 in the extra frame — to set Mika Zibanejad up with the game-winner at the 14:22 mark.
It should’ve never gone that far.
“That’s what the playoffs are all about,” said Gallagher. “You can’t take your foot off the gas. Look at what’s going on around the league right now. There’s a lot of comeback wins. You’ve got to be able to play with the lead, hold those leads. You can’t feel comfortable with a one-goal lead. I don’t think we sat back or anything, but we got a little loose with our play and it cost us tonight.”
It could cost the Canadiens much more.