PITTSBURGH — Reality catches up to everyone eventually, and the Montreal Canadiens are no exception.
They have fought, and fought valiantly with their backs against the wall to avoid facing it. And even now — with a third-straight loss in a pivotal week that their playoff hopes were riding on, this one a 4-1 beating at the hands of the Pittsburgh Penguins — they’re clinging to a desperate hope that they haven’t run out of time to pull off a miraculous run from here to the end of the season.
But they’re barely clinging to it, and they know that what they have to do has to be miraculous.
They knew that they had to win three of four games this week to keep themselves in the mix, and they know that the best they can do now is win one back in Montreal, in a Saturday matchup against a potent Dallas Stars team that’s just been sitting there waiting for them.
The Canadiens know that they haven’t won more than three games in a row all season but that they have to win their next four, and get some help from some of the other teams they’re chasing, to have any hope of keeping general manager Marc Bergevin from selling off some assets at the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
Maybe it was knowing that the axe was inching closer and closer to their necks on the guillotine that caused the Canadiens to make the kind of mistakes on Friday the Penguins have capitalized on all season — en route to building the fourth-best record in the NHL. Mistakes like giving Sidney Crosby an odd-man rush from his own blue line, which led to Jason Zucker’s first goal as a Penguin since coming over in a trade from the Minnesota Wild on Monday.
It’s entirely possible the pressure of their situation has become too stifling for this Canadiens group. It would make for a perfect explanation of why they’ve fallen into a habit they established early in the season, wherein they allow a goal against in the final minute of a period.
That happened for a 16th time (not including empty-net goals) when Brett Kulak allowed Zucker to beat him to the middle of the slot for his second goal as a Penguin. It was just 36 seconds after the Canadiens had clawed their way back to a 2-1 deficit on a power play goal from Brendan Gallagher.
"That third goal really hurt us," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien.
It just about killed them. Then the Penguins suffocated them into a coma for the rest of the game, and pulled the plug with Zach Aston-Reese’s empty-net goal.
Maybe it’s not just the pressure of knowing that, starting on this night, they had to win at a clip no other team in the league’s been able to just to keep their season alive.
Maybe it’s that they’ve been fighting so hard — through injuries, bumps, bruises and illness — that they just don’t have enough gas left to match up with the superior teams they’ve faced this week.
When that question was put to Julien after Friday’s game, he didn’t dismiss it.
"We’ll see with time, right," he said. "It’s actually a reality [that they could be out of gas]. We don’t want to go there as far as… As a team we feel that we want to keep pushing.
“I know our chances are getting slimmer every game we lose, but we look around and we have a little bit of help like last night [the Toronto Maple Leafs and Florida Panthers both lost in regulation on Thursday] and it gives you hope.
“And, at the end of the day, it’s pretty simple: We’re going to have to get on a really good winning streak if we plan on getting back into this hunt."
Knowing that, can the Canadiens simplify their game and trust that the results will fall on their side of the ledger? Can they avoid making the kind of mistakes they’ve consistently made all year, but specifically in games they absolutely must win (like Monday’s against the Arizona Coyotes, or Wednesday’s against the Boston Bruins, or Friday’s in Pittsburgh)?
"We don’t have a choice," said Montreal forward Tomas Tatar.
It feels like the Canadiens don’t have a prayer.
They have to collect 36 of 44 points available to them over the final 22 games of the season to finish with a point more than the third-in-the-Atlantic Maple Leafs are on pace for. Make it 38 of 44 points to finish with one more than the Columbus Blue Jackets — current owners of the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card position — are on pace for.
"We can only just prepare for the next game," said Montreal centre Max Domi.
We’re preparing for what’s seemingly become inevitable — another Canadiens season losing significance well before Game 82.