MONTREAL — Montreal Canadiens fans braved hurricane winds, several inches of snow and a treacherous drive to the Bell Centre, and then they waited for just under 53 minutes to see their team score a goal in what turned out to be a 4-2 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks.
The Canadiens, who have mounted more third-period comebacks than any other team in the NHL this season, couldn’t dig themselves out of a 3-0 hole despite their best efforts. They had 42 shots on net, limited the Blackhawks to just 24, and had enough quality chances on goaltender Corey Crawford to win two games.
But all it took was three Grade A scoring chances for the talented Blackhawks to collect points 92 and 93 on their season, moving into first place in the Western Conference.
Hawks captain Jonathan Toews scored his 18th goal of the season into an empty net with 1:22 remaining.
“We can’t criticize the effort,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien in French. “We played against one of the best teams in the league. Our effort was there, but the execution wasn’t on point tonight. It would seem that was the difference against a Chicago team that was better than us in their execution.”
That’s part of it.
The other part of it is that the Canadiens played an immaculate game on the defensive side of the puck, which was undone by one player who made all the mistakes on goals for Patrick Kane, Johnny Oduya and Artemi Panarin.
Canadiens defenceman Alexei Emelin gambled in the first period when he stepped up on Artem Anisimov in the neutral zone. He lost badly when the Chicago forward, who left at the end of the first period with a lower-body injury, stepped around him to find Kane all alone in the slot.
Kane, who started the game two points shy of Connor McDavid’s scoring lead, buried his 31st goal of the season. He added two assists before night’s end to move into a tie for the NHL’s pole position.
Emelin made another ill-timed gamble—this time in the second period—when he pinched at the offensive blue line, missed his check and ended up knocking teammate Brendan Gallagher out of the play.
Emelin’s partner Jeff Petry made a heroic stab at the puck to break up the ensuing two-on-one rush, but it found its way to Oduya at the point. Gallagher couldn’t recover from the collision with Emelin to get back on time to cover off Oduya’s shot, which zipped by goaltender Carey Price’s glove and pinged off the crossbar before crossing the goal-line.
Emelin completed the hat trick of errors 47 seconds into the third period, when he lunged out of his position on the left side of the defensive zone, skated all the way across to the right, and left Panarin all alone in front.
“I thought defensively, we didn’t give them much and certainly the shot count was in our favour,” said Paul Byron, who scored his 19th goal of the season to make it 3-1 with just over seven minutes to play. “But any time you have dynamic players like Panarin and Kane out there you gotta be aware and you gotta be a little safer and not give them those chances with risky plays.”
Especially when your team doesn’t have the offence to bail you out.
The Canadiens have scored three or more goals in just five of their last 19 games. They had just three goals in regulation over their last 11 periods before Shea Weber added one to Byron’s late-game tally to push to total to five in their last 12.
Montreal had scored on just three of its last 16 power-play opportunities before firing blanks on their two chances against Chicago.
When it comes down to it, they aren’t a team that can afford to gift some of the best players in the world the type of opportunities Emelin offered up on Tuesday.
“Down to the wire here and down the stretch and in the playoffs that’s the difference between winning and losing,” said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty. “Pretty good effort, played pretty well…but…a couple of mistakes. Being able to limit those is the difference between winning and losing.”
It’s something the Canadiens have done a better job of under Julien, going 8-4-0 since he took over from Michel Therrien on Feb. 14.
But if the team is going to hang onto first place in the Atlantic Division and build some positive momentum over its final 12 games of the regular season, the coach is going to have to continue tinkering.
“It doesn’t matter what I say here,” said Julien. “What matters is what I do inside that dressing room…”
What he does outside of it could be just as critical.
It’s a likelihood that defenceman Nathan Beaulieu will be part of Julien’s plans for Saturday’s game against the Ottawa Senators after he sat as a healthy scratch on Tuesday for the first time this season. That move may very well push Emelin to the sidelines.
But there’s only so much Julien can do to make it worth it for Montrealers to make the two-hour drive to Kanata on what’s supposed to be another snowy day.
“We gotta be a little bit hungrier and want to make that next play and not just be content to put the puck on net,” said Pacioretty. “That’s the difference between scoring goals and not.”