BOSTON—Claude Julien was back at TD Garden Wednesday for the first time since being fired by the Boston Bruins just over 11 months ago, and the organization paid beautiful tribute to his tenure with a touching 76-second video that played coming out of a first-period television timeout.
Julien’s Montreal Canadiens did whatever the opposite of paying him tribute would be in their 4-1 loss, and it was inexplicable. Barring the obvious — that the Canadiens are far inferior to a Bruins team that has now picked up a point in 14 straight games and is 10-0-4 since Dec. 15 — the effort was several notches below desperate.
Montreal had picked up six of eight points over its last four games, and had fought as hard as it could without managing to make up any substantial ground in the standings.
And on Wednesday night, the Canadiens looked like a team that was completely dejected by that reality.
"We laid an egg," said Julien afterwards.
His team came into the game with an 18-20-6 record, 12 points behind the Toronto Maple Leafs for third place in the Atlantic Division and nine points back of the Pittsburgh Penguins, who sit in the Eastern Conference’s final playoff position. It’s not as if they needed extra incentive – winning one for the coach in his old stomping grounds — to put in the work that might enable them to achieve an improbable outcome against the Bruins.
But, after Canadiens defenceman Jakub Jerabek notched his first NHL goal 31 seconds into the game, he and his teammates allowed a goal from David Pastrnak and were outshot 12-6 in the first period.
The Canadiens went down 2-1 before three minutes of the second period were played, they recorded their first shot of the frame at the 6:56 mark, and by the time intermission came around they trailed the Bruins 48-22 in shot attempts. They had also lost 57 per cent of the faceoffs, and they were out-hit 27-24.
The team downgraded from listless to pathetic in the third period, showing no tangible desire to ward off the inevitable and allowing goals from Brad Marchand and David Krejci before the final buzzer blew.
"We can’t afford to have off nights, especially against a team that’s supposed to be our biggest rival," said Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher. "We’re supposed to show up. We’ve always loved coming into this building and playing. Tonight that wasn’t the case. At no point in the game did we have the effort level we needed to win, and we got what we deserved.
"There’s no feeling sorry for yourself. No one else is going to feel sorry for us. We got ourselves in this hole and there’s no point in quitting."
About that last part, we’re not entirely sure how the players can find the necessary wherewithal at this stage.
"We realize where we are," said Julien. "At the same time, just a few years ago Ottawa went on a run with a goaltender by the name of Hammond (the Senators went 24-4-4 down the stretch of the 2014-15 season to overcome a seemingly insurmountable deficit in the standings, and they made the playoffs).
"Sometimes if you believe, good things can happen. But it’s got to start with the belief. If you don’t believe, you’re wasting your time. But we have a group of guys that if they get together and believe in themselves, that chance is still there. We believe. It’s up to them to believe as much as we do."
The reality is that the Canadiens need to win at a clip that only the Tampa Bay Lightning and Vegas Golden Knights have been able to establish through the first 45 games of the season in order to make a miracle run to the playoffs. And they have shown no signs through the first half of the season of being capable of doing so.
The team, which already had its warts at centre and on defence, is missing Phillip Danault and Andrew Shaw up the middle and missing No. 1 defenceman Shea Weber. All of them are sidelined indefinitely.
And it’s not as if the games get easier from this point forward.
The Canadiens played like a team resigned to its discouraging fate on Wednesday.
"It just seemed like people were panicking with the puck and didn’t seem to want it," said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty. "That’s the difference between good teams and not, is when everyone wants the puck and everyone wants to make a difference."
When Julien was asked if he could sense that some players had thrown in the towel, he deflected, saying they were better-suited to answer than he was.
And then Julien said, "Well it certainly looked like that tonight."
"When you look at our team, we looked like a team that maybe didn’t believe and gave up easily and all that stuff," Julien added. "But I go back again, four, five games before that we didn’t look like that team. So it’s up to us to — probably next game — to decide which way we want to go here. Are we going to want to bounce back and get back to playing some better hockey than we did tonight, or are we just going to drag that on?
"Again, part of our job is to make those guys believe, but you often say you can lead a horse to water but you can’t force them to drink. Part of the responsibility belongs to them and part of it belongs to us to make them believe."
To say that will be an uphill battle for Julien after Wednesday’s performance would be understating it.