Max Pacioretty had been carrying the weight of the world on his shoulders, but his coach Michel Therrien helped lighten the load Monday night in Tampa Bay.
Therrien, who had admitted several times over the last three and a half seasons behind Montreal’s bench that his shootout selections were based on statistics, played a major hunch by tabbing Pacioretty to shoot for a chance to beat the Lightning.
Pacioretty’s lifetime record in NHL shootouts coming into Monday’s game: five goals on 20 attempts.
Think about what was hanging in the balance here.
The Canadiens, who had lost 10 of 11 games, stumbled into Tampa Bay to face a team that had beaten them in all five regular-season contests last season before eliminating them in six games of Round 2 of the Stanley Cup playoffs.
Pacioretty, who had scored one goal on 50 shots of his team’s most miserable stretch of hockey since the year 2000, was wearing the C on his sweater like a scab that wouldn’t heal. He had cursed his way through post-game press conferences over the skid, labeled the situation the toughest one he’d faced in his career, and the stress of it all appeared to overwhelm him throughout just about every minute of Monday’s game.
Pacioretty had four shots on net through 19:34, one scoring chance, and was dominated at even strength (37.5 CorsiFor percentage).
But he fought through it.
If it wasn’t for Pacioretty’s decision to put a puck deep into Tampa’s zone with the Canadiens trailing 3-2 and the clock fading in the third period, Dale Weise wouldn’t have tied the game.
And his goal in the shootout wasn’t some lucky bounce off of 6-foot-7 goaltender Ben Bishop; it was a well-sold fake followed by a backhand deposit into the back of the net.
Relief? You bet!
After the Canadiens had lost 3-1 to the Washington Capitals last Saturday, Pacioretty said they desperately needed to gain a lead to take into the first intermission so they could feel good about themselves. The Canadiens had allowed the first goal in six consecutive games — all of them losses in regulation time.
On Monday, assistant captain Tomas Plekanec snapped a career-long 21-game goal drought to give the Canadiens a 1-0 lead they kept through the remaining 4:02 of the first period.
What followed was 45 minutes of nail-biting, edge-of-your-seat, hold-onto-your-hat hockey.
Tampa tied the game at one in the second period before Alex Galchenyuk’s ninth of the season gave the Canadiens another lead to take with them to the dressing room at intermission.
Weise’s goal came 32 seconds after that, and allowed the biggest moment of Pacioretty’s season to become an eventual reality.
Brian Flynn, who was a smart pick to shoot based on his 3-for-5 career success-rate in the shootout, slipped a backhand-forehand move through Bishop’s legs to help put Pacioretty in position to win the game for Montreal.
The Canadiens, who bent all night but didn’t break, got a spectacular performance from Mike Condon as well. He narrowly avoided becoming the first goaltender since Jose Theodore (1998-99) to lose eight straight starts in Montreal’s net, making 36 saves and two monumental ones in the shootout before Pacioretty’s goal.
It wasn’t just the biggest moment of Pacioretty’s season; it was the biggest moment of Montreal’s season.
The win pushed the Canadiens back into first place in the Atlantic Division. They have a chance to extend their lead to three points over the next-best Florida Panthers when the two teams meet Tuesday night.
Suddenly, the weight of the world seems that much more bearable for Pacioretty and his teammates.