Whatever happened to the Montreal Canadiens during the Christmas break, it wasn’t good.
This team had won three of four games in Western Canada and closed out the pre-Christmas schedule in the third place in the Atlantic Division after having responded to an 0-5-3 run with wins in seven of its last 10 games.
But 5-4 and 6-5 losses to the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers on successive nights have put them back in a precarious position ahead of their final game of 2019. The Canadiens are in fifth place in the Atlantic Division, two points behind the Lightning (who have two games in-hand) and three points behind the third-place Panthers (who own one game in-hand).
And it’s not because Montreal didn’t battle in these two games. They fought as hard as any team possibly could in having to chase down multi-goal leads in the third period of both contests. There’s nothing bad to say about the character of this group and about its sheer will to fight for every point.
But there’s something that needs to be said about the focus of the group when — on back-to-back nights and against two teams they’re battling tooth-and-nail with in the playoff race — they beat themselves.
When you look at the mistakes the Canadiens made in these two games, it’s hard to see it otherwise.
DEFENSIVE LAPSES, GOALTENDING, PENALTIES LEAD TO TRAGIC TRIP TO FLORIDA
Here’s what Brendan Gallagher had to say about the Canadiens stringing together key wins prior to this weekend’s action:
“I think we learned how we needed to play as a team, how we needed to really tighten up and what was going to lead to success. We kind of found a little bit of a formula, and now it’s on us to not fall back into the trap that we did before.”
Boy, do those words ever resonate right now.
Gallagher took two of five offensive-zone penalties the Canadiens were charged with in the loss to Florida, and he made an egregious error on Aleksander Barkov’s goal to tie the game 3-3 in the second period.
Jeff Petry and Brett Kulak were caught out of position on the play in question, but it was the most reliable pair of Canadiens defencemen through December — Ben Chiarot and Shea Weber — that got burned on four of the goals the Panthers scored.
And for a second night in a row, Carey Price was beat on at least two shots he’d like to have back.
Knowing him, he’d probably like to have back all six goals he gave up to Florida on the first 22 shots he faced.
Gallagher, Chiarot, Weber, Price… If those are the guys making the most glaring mistakes in the game, the Canadiens have virtually no chance of winning. No matter how hard they fight.
Meanwhile, getting back to the theme of mental errors, taking five penalties in the second half of a back-to-back situation — and against a team that had scored on seven of its last 17 power plays — is asking for trouble. Taking all five in the offensive zone is completely inexcusable, and it’s as clear an indication as there is that the Canadiens weren’t mentally sharp enough to win this game.
Granted, the Panthers scored all their goals at even strength, but they likely beat the Canadiens in that category because of the momentum they gained on the power play and the energy the Canadiens burned on the penalty kill.
That would at least in part explain how the Canadiens allowed Florida to score in bursts. The Panthers got their first two in less than two minutes and scored another two later on in 35 seconds.
The bounces factored in — they always do — but they weren’t the difference in the game, even if Gallagher and Nick Suzuki both hit the post and the Canadiens missed several golden opportunities to score while pucks bounced off Chiarot and Weber on separate occasions for goals against.
“When you score nine goals in two games, you should be able to gain some points in the standings,” Canadiens coach Claude Julien told reporters after the loss to the Panthers. “Unfortunately, we’re playing what you call pond hockey, we’re exchanging chances with the other team, and we’re not in a position to play that way. Especially with the injuries we have and all that. It’s important for us to play a much tighter defensive game than we have lately.”
When Julien was asked if Price was given a good enough chance to win the game, he responded by saying the goaltender was as much to blame as anyone else.
“We lost the game, and I think everyone can be a lot better than they were,” Julien added. “If we’re here to accept roses when we win, we’ll take the criticism, too, when we lose. I’d say everyone can be better defensively.”
• Jonathan Huberdeau recorded the first four-point game of his career on Dec. 16. Then he notched another one in his very next game. And on Sunday, Huberdeau set up the second and third goal the Panthers scored and then put in two of his own to give his team a 5-3 lead.
The Saint-Jerome, Que., native, who scored 92 points a season ago, now has 16 points in his last six games. Huberdeau now has 16 goals and 53 points in 38 games.
Only five players have more points. Their names are Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl, Brad Marchand, David Pastrnak and Nathan MacKinnon, and yet it’s rare to hear Huberdeau’s name lumped in with these others.
It’s fair to say that he’s the most underrated forward in the NHL.
• Canadiens rookie Suzuki registered his first three-point night in the NHL and has points now in five consecutive games (one goal, seven assists).
The Canadiens will play the Hurricanes in Carolina on New Year’s Eve.