BOSTON— Bruised, battered and beat down by the Bruins is how the Montreal Canadiens are leaving Boston.
It was a decisive loss for Montreal on Wednesday, another nail in the coffin for their playoff hopes, and it must have felt about as good as Zdeno Chara’s second-period crosscheck to Brendan Gallagher’s throat did, which is to say not good at all.
Still, somehow, the Canadiens have not abandoned their battle, nor hope, in the wake of yet another crushing defeat.
“The only way we’re going to get better is to continue to compete hard,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien after the 4-1 loss.
Easier said than done when a recent 8-3-0 run only allowed the team to pick up just two points in the playoff race and consecutive losses that followed pushed them right back to seven points out of third place in the Atlantic Division and eight points out of the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference.
It’s the kind of devastation this group has grown accustomed to.
What does it say about this Canadiens season that the three players we spoke to following their 4-1 loss to their archrivals on Wednesday classified captain Shea Weber’s four-to-six week absence with a left-ankle sprain as good news?
“It’s awesome,” said Phillip Danault, albeit in a measured tone.
Because this was Danault, who could barely open his mouth to speak after a shot in Monday’s 3-2 loss to the Arizona Coyotes hit him in the face and caused major dental damage that made it impossible for him to have a solid meal before Wednesday’s game.
But yeah, Weber’s possible return to action as a rallying point feels moot at this stage to those outside the Canadiens room.
Not to diminish the fact that there were obvious concerns (both inside and outside of the organization) in the time between Weber’s injury and his diagnosis that his season could be through and surgery might be only his only recovery option and that after consulting with orthopedic specialist Dr. Robert Anderson in Wisconsin earlier in the day those concerns were alleviated. That is certainly good news.
It’s just that it was painfully clear before the Canadiens were dominated by the Bruins that the task to conquer the odds and make the playoffs was monumental, and now it’s undeniable that it’s only grown larger without Weber for the next month to month-and-a-half.
They missed him in this game. They missed him against Arizona, when they gave up a power-play goal with exactly one minute left in regulation. They’re going to be missing him against the fourth-best team in the league (the Pittsburgh Penguins) on Friday, against the third-best team in the Western Conference (the Dallas Stars) on Saturday, and for multiple games to follow—with time running out to make a push.
And it hurts, even if the Canadiens continue to put on a brave face. It hurts like Gallagher’s throat hurt. It hurts like Jeff Petry’s midsection probably hurts after taking a spear from Brad Marchand in the first period. It hurts like Danault’s mouth hurts. It hurts like Tomas Tatar’s fingers must hurt, with the Canadiens’ leading scorer making his way out of TD Garden with a splint on his hand.
The pain of this season has proven insurmountable for this group, with Jonathan Drouin (wrist), Paul Byron (knee), Joel Armia (hand), Gallagher (concussion) missing significant game-action and with several others playing through illness and injury at different points.
And on Wednesday, against a Bruins team that played what hat-trick scorer David Pastrnak referred to as “one of our best games of the season, for sure,” the pain throbbed for the Canadiens.
It was Marchand taking advantage of a Drouin turnover in the neutral zone and splicing his way through Petry and Brett Kulak to give Pastrnak what might have been the easiest of his 41 goals on the season to open the scoring.
From there, the Czech sniper picked the Canadiens apart.
And it’s not like the Montreal side didn’t fight.
“They came hard,” said Pastrnak. “They’re fighting for playoffs.”
The Canadiens won’t stop.
“We’ve taken a lot of punches,” said Danault. “It’s hard, but nobody’s going to give up here. We’re a hard-working team, we’ve got a good work ethic, we practise hard, (and) we got some pride here. Everyone. Sometimes it’s hard, but that’s where you see the real guts, so we’re going to pushing to the end.”
But the plucky centreman and his teammates are under no illusions about where they stand, nor do they deny how much better they need to play in order to conjure up something bordering on magical over their final 23 games.
At the very least, the Canadiens need a power play that scores on more than nine per cent of its opportunities, which hasn’t been the case since Jan. 1.
“It’s something we’ve got to improve here,” said Gallagher. “We don’t seem to be getting any second chances, (they’re) one and done. We’re a little bit slow, a little bit predictable, which has kind of been our tendency when we’ve been struggling. We’ve fallen back into that trap, so we’ve got to get back to doing things quick and execution and knowing where guys are so we can open up some holes on the penalty kill.”
And Julien said they need to shoot the puck when they have the opportunity instead of looking for plays that aren’t there, which is something they did much of against Boston and it contributed to them not generating more than five scoring chance from the high-danger zone (according to www.naturalstattrick.com).
Even with those things resolved, new problems are likely to pop up. Because that’s the way it’s been for this hobbled, down-on-its-luck group, which is already having a hard enough time trying to suspend its doomed reality.