MONTREAL— Phillip Danault tried to conceal it. In his post-game scrum, he said all the right things players typically say of a team battling for its season but failing to emerge victorious for an eighth straight game, and he did about as well as he could to not let on about how he was feeling deep within.
And then the Montreal Canadiens’ dressing room all but cleared and we prodded further, because his face told us he wasn’t just frustrated.
It seemed painfully obvious, Danault was completely dejected.
We’ve rarely (if ever) seen Danault that way since he came to this team in 2016 in what might be considered the best trade general manager Marc Bergevin has made over his seven-and-a-half years in charge. He is generally a beacon of positive energy; a smiling, accommodating, upbeat gentleman who almost always leans towards the bright side—even in dark times.
But this is a blackout. After scoring a goal and helping the Canadiens earn a 2-0 lead against the Edmonton Oilers, after watching it crumble in what would’ve been an NHL-leading 18th one-goal loss had it not been for an empty-net goal scored by Josh Archibald with 35 seconds to go. Then, after answering 10 minutes worth of questions about where it all goes from here and what makes this different than the eight-game skid suffered from Nov. 16-Dec. 2 and how he and his teammates can find a way to conjure up the confidence to win, Danault thought about what it will take to miraculously turn this around and came up empty.
“What is it, 26 wins?” he then asked.
Actually, we responded, it would take the Canadiens 27 wins and an extra point earned in an overtime or shootout loss to get the 98 points it took to make last year’s playoffs in the Eastern Conference. We didn’t have to tell him that means they’d have to have a points percentage of 74.3 over their final 37 games.
We didn’t have to tell him that the Canadiens have earned 47.8 per cent of the points available to them thus far, and not even the league-leading Washington Capitals have managed to earn 74.3 per cent of theirs.
And whether or not the undeniable reality of the situation hit Danault in real-time or it’s been haunting him for the better part of two weeks, it all came out of him in a very humane way following Thursday’s 4-2 loss to Connor McDavid and Co.
The 26-year-old Victoriaville, Que., native sighed and said, “It’s tough to explain how I feel.”
“I’m miserable at home right now,” he added. “It’s a good thing my wife is there for me at home and I’m trying to stay positive at the rink. I don’t think the fun’s gone away, but obviously we’re not smiling all over the place. It’s not the same fun we had at the beginning of the year.
“But I think the chemistry’s always going to be there as a team. We’re going through that all together.”
It would be one thing if the Canadiens weren’t trying.
“We haven’t quit,” insisted coach Claude Julien, and the fact that the Canadiens ritualistically out-shoot and out-play their opponents — like they did save for roughly 10 minutes on this night — proves that.
“Obviously, we’re not winning,” Julien said, “But we’re not a team that comes into games and gets completely dominated. We’re still doing our job to keep guys going and keep them motivated.”
But it’s getting harder and harder.
“We’re running out of answers, as you can see,” the coach said.
Canadiens captain Shea Weber stood in the middle of his post-game scrum and said that he didn’t have answers for what was happening.
“If we had answers, we would turn this around quickly,” he added.
A good bounce or two would help.
Like, if Nate Thompson had put the puck off the post and in instead of out after he broke in all alone on Oilers goaltender Mike Smith and deked him onto his stomach late in the second period, the Canadiens would have taken a 3-1 lead to the second intermission.
Sure, maybe Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Alex Chiasson would have still scored the two goals that actually put the Canadiens down 3-2 because Thompson missed, but they’d have still had a chance to win the game.
But that’s not the way it has gone of late.
“We have chances to score and we’re missing chances to score,” said Julien, “And it eventually comes back and bites us.”
The Canadiens had 37 shots on Thursday. The game report at www.natturalstattrick.com says they had 20 scoring chances in total — seven from the high-danger zone — but it marked the fifth time in their last six games that they couldn’t manage to score at least three goals.
Brendan Gallagher’s return from a concussion that kept him out of the last four games didn’t change much, and the Canadiens will approach Saturday’s game in Ottawa without hope that any of Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia or Paul Byron — all of them mending long-term injuries — will be available.
None of them are expected to play in the five games the Canadiens have left before breaking from Jan. 19-26 for the NHL’s bye-week.
“We can’t let our guard down,” said Danault. “We’ve gotta keep going, grinding again and again, until we get out of this.”
“We don’t have the right to give up and we don’t have the right to pity ourselves,” Julien added. “We’re paid to do a job, and we have to continue to try to find a solution.”
We asked the coach how he’s dealing with all the losses and how he’s finding a way to come back with the right outlook day after day.
But Julien just repeated himself.
When we asked Weber, he said, “You focus on the game, you focus on the shift, (and) I don’t think you focus on the end result of the season.”
When we asked Danault, he just said what he was feeling.
“It’s really hard right now.”