On Tuesday afternoon, they looked very much like the team that stumbled to the NHL’s 24th-best record and nothing like the one that shocked the hockey world with a qualifying-round upset over the Pittsburgh Penguins and three strong performances against the Flyers. The Canadiens struggled to complete a pass, let alone score a goal, and they lost 2-0.
Montreal’s last goal came 10:35 into the third period of Game 2 — a shot from Jesperi Kotkaniemi that whizzed past Brian Elliott’s shoulder to cement a 5-0 win. Despite several changes interim head coach Kirk Muller made — he shuffled his centre-line to start Game 4, moving Phillip Danault between Brendan Gallagher and Tomas Tatar, Nick Suzuki with Max Domi and Jonathan Drouin and Kotkaniemi with Paul Byron and Artturi Lehkonen, and he mixed everything up halfway through the second period— nothing worked.
Muller practically broke the blender in the third period, shuffling Jake Evans into Gallagher’s spot as one of several changes that hadn’t been made at any other point this season.
“Today it’s a tight game again and we just kind of had certain times during the game that we just didn’t have momentum at all,” he explained. “So try to generate some more speed through that neutral zone and get some more pucks to the net and that’s why I tried different combinations to try and see if there’s some chemistry amongst different guys.
No chemistry. No rhythm. No cohesion. No goals.
Nothing epitomized Montreal’s performance more than a second-period sequence that saw Drouin ignore Domi streaking down the middle of the ice to pass to a stick-less Kotkaniemi for a play that died at the Flyers’ blue line.
What a disaster.
It was a game that left the Canadiens searching for answers and totally frustrated.
Though Gallagher said frustration was a wasted emotion following Sunday’s Game 3 loss, it appeared to get the better of him in Game 4. The 28-year-old, who’s accumulated 86 goals over the last three seasons, came into Tuesday’s action with zero goals to show for his playoff-leading 31 shots on net. He was silently seething in his post-game availability after being parked on the bench for a long stint during the second period and for all but four shifts in the third.
“You just have to do your best to fight that urge [to let frustration set in],” Gallagher said. “You play for one reason; you play for your teammates. Regardless of what’s happened, I think I’ve got to find a way here and, whenever you’re out on the ice, just take advantage of it. I guess if the coach feels other guys are going to do the job better than you, that’s his job. It doesn’t mean I sit there and accept it, but my job’s to play. So when I’m put on the ice, just try and help out.”
When Gallagher was asked if he was 100-per-cent healthy, he curtly responded, “I’m fine.”
Gallagher was anything but fine in this game, and his Canadiens teammates weren’t any better. They may have out-shot the Flyers 29-22, but they certainly didn’t out-chance them or out-work them.
“We stress with the guys that it’s important how you play without the puck,” said Muller earlier in the day. “If you have a compete level that’s high and you play the right way, usually good things fall into place. We’ll continue to preach that and we know that we’re going to have to play 60 minutes against the opponent that we’re playing. But if we do that, like I say, then the offence will take care of itself. So we want to continue to play the same way.”
They didn’t, but Philadelphia did.
Carter Hart was good when he had to be, which wasn’t all that often, and the Flyers won the battles and got the goals — one from Michael Raffl in the seventh minute of the game, and an ugly one from Philippe Myers that dribbled through Carey Price with 2:56 to go in the second period.
“That was the break that we needed,” Muller said. “But you create your own breaks.”
The Canadiens weren’t prepared to do that in the first period, and they didn’t fare much better in the second. And by the time the woke up, with 12 `shots in the third period, it was too late.
It was a game that mirrored so many they played during an up-and-mostly-down season.
Not to detract from what the Flyers did to show what turned them into the top seed in the Eastern Conference.
“I’d say today they played desperate. They came out strong at the start and they made some big blocks. They blocked all the shots, no matter who was shooting,” said Danault of the Canadiens’ counterparts. “They played desperate, and that’s what we need to do.”
If the Canadiens can’t come Game 5 on Wednesday, it’ll be their last night in the bubble.