BROSSARD, Que.— It’s a fight against several teams above them in the playoff race, a fight against some extremely daunting odds and a fight the Montreal Canadiens must pursue without three of their best players — at least for the first game of their final 32 — against the league-leading Washington Capitals on Monday.
Jonathan Drouin (wrist), Brendan Gallagher (headaches) and Paul Byron (knee) won’t be available for that contest at the Bell Centre. There was hope all three would be in uniform for the Canadiens’ first practice in a week, but that was snuffed out 30 minutes before the team took the ice at its south-shore training facility Sunday, when a public relations official announced that the injured trio would skate as a group after the team’s one-hour workout.
Whatever dismal hope remains for the Canadiens to avoid missing the playoffs for a third straight season and a fourth time in the last five years seems tethered to speedy recoveries for Drouin and Gallagher — and to a lesser extent Byron.
They are a team that depends on a four-line attack and an all-out speed assault, and as their coach, Claude Julien, put it on Sunday, “I think we’ve been a little thin because of those injuries.”
It wasn’t so much of an excuse as it was an outline of the reality that’s sunk the Canadiens into such a desperate situation with a little over a third of the NHL season left to play. They improved to 11-5-3 when they lost Drouin and Byron in a 5-2 win over the Capitals on Nov. 15, and then they proceeded to lose their next eight games.
The Canadiens bounced back with wins in seven of their next 10, but then Joel Armia, who was in the midst of a career season, suffered a hand injury. And two games later, Gallagher went down with a concussion.
Another eight-game skid put this season in jeopardy.
Four wins in five games before the break haven’t changed a thing for the Canadiens. They are 10 points out of third place in the Atlantic Division, 10 points out of the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card position and there are three non-playoff teams in front of them in the standings.
If the Florida Panthers (who occupy that third spot in the Atlantic) continue at the same pace they’ve been on to this point in the season, they’ll finish with 102 points in the standings. And if the Carolina Hurricanes (the second wild-card) keep going at the same rate, they’ll record 100 points.
For the Canadiens to get to 103, they’ll need to earn 50 of 64 points available to them. That means winning at a clip that’s six per cent higher than the Capitals have to this point in the season, which seems near impossible — especially without Drouin, Gallagher and Byron.
So when Julien says the first two are getting close and that he’s hoping for good news on all three, it’s probably more apt to suggest he and the Canadiens are depending on it.
“Gally’s doing well,” the coach said after Sunday’s practice. “We’re continuing the process of getting him back ASAP. I’m just going to wait for the medical staff to clear him, but he’s been skating now for a little while, so he’s feeling good. So hopefully in the next day or so, or few days, whatever time it takes, we might see him back.
“Jonathan Drouin’s still in the situation of trying to heal his injury, and in the meantime (he’s) getting his conditioning up to snuff. So he’s also going in the right direction.”
Julien added that Byron’s not quite as advanced in his recovery from knee surgery. That was bad news.
But when Julien was pressed further about Drouin’s status, the coach didn’t rule out a return for the 24-year-old before the end of the week.
For now, they must forge on without him.
“Right now, it doesn’t matter who’s in our lineup,” Canadiens forward Max Domi said. “We’re confident in the guys that we’re dressing right now and that’s what we’re focused on.”
Ilya Kovalchuk, who has eight points in eight games since signing a one-year, $700,000 contract with the Canadiens, believes the group is coming back reinvigorated from the bye week and prepared to face the monumental task ahead with enthusiasm.
“I know we can do it,” the 36-year-old said. “We’re all in. We talked before the break, and today at the meeting coach addressed everybody and was very clear: We’ve got to push to the end and we have to believe in ourselves. The guys are getting healthy and everything is in our hands. We have some big games against the teams we’re chasing — Buffalo, Florida, Columbus. It’s not going to take one or two games — we’ve got to be consistently good.”
The Canadiens have no choice but to be great, and Julien believes they can be.
“We do have some good examples from years past of teams who came out of the break and really caught fire, had a strong finish, got some help and some luck and squeezed into the playoffs,” he said. “That’s what we have to do, concentrate on our situation, hope to create the situation we’re talking about and we’re going to need to get some help somewhere. That will have to be a part of our success, too.”
The return of their injured players can’t come soon enough, either.