TORONTO — Patrick Marleau delivered the death blow with 10 seconds remaining in one of the most pitiful seasons the Montreal Canadiens have played in their 109-year existence. The Toronto Maple Leafs forward did it by intercepting a whiffed breakout pass from goaltender Carey Price and depositing it in the net for his 27th goal of the season.
It was fitting, really. The Canadiens, who fell flat on their faces with their worst start to a season in 76 years, went out in like-fashion with one more embarrassing moment that resonates. In doing so, they became the first edition of the club to be swept by the Leafs in a season series of at least four games, they suffered their franchise-worst 40th loss in regulation and equalled the mark they set in the pitiful 2000-01 season. They finished with the NHL’s 28th-best record — managing just one point more in the standings (71) than their franchise-worst total since the NHL moved to 82-game seasons in 1995.
About the boys in blue and white: they’re heading to the playoffs for a second straight season — this time with real expectations that they’ll do damage — and it wasn’t all that long ago that head coach Mike Babcock promised Toronto fans pain before pleasure.
It does, however, feel like ages ago that Babcock uttered those words, now that Auston Matthews, Mitch Marner and Willie Nylander have taken the league by storm and other young guns Morgan Rielly and Jake Gardiner have helped veterans like Marleau, Nazem Kadri and James Van Riemsdyk carry the Leafs to new heights.
This team was built for success, the Canadiens weren’t.
"I coached in Detroit for 10 years and made it all 10 years and we were the only team in the NHL that did," said Babcock. "So, to me, when you look at that, that’s what parity’s done now. If you come off a little bit, you get the wrong injury, have goaltending problems, have special team problems, you can miss. But the idea is to build a team so good, with so much depth, that you’re in every year just because you’re that deep."
An injury to Canadiens defenceman Shea Weber in Game 1 of the season was insurmountable for their group. An off year for Price compounded the issue. And the team’s penalty kill finished at 74 per cent and had an appalling 66.7 per cent rating on the road.
Those are the facts, but the idea that the Canadiens had the depth to be a legitimate playoff contender this season is farfetched, bordering on convoluted.
"Right from the get-go we had a poor start and we‘ve been talking about trying to find a solution and it just kind of feels like we failed," said Canadiens leading scorer Brendan Gallagher. "We had higher expectations than where we ended up and it’s disappointing…"
But it surely isn’t shocking.
Before the season started Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin ripped apart the defence of a team that finished with the NHL’s fourth-best goals-against average last April. He did virtually nothing to improve the offence, which finished in the middle of the pack last season and scored just 11 goals in a six-game playoff loss to the New York Rangers. And he waded into October with over $8 million in cap space — money he never ended up spending.
"It’s been a tough year and we all know that," said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "But at the same time we have to take lessons out of what happened this year in order to make things better, and the lessons that we’ve gotten are obviously the fact that we have some work to do."
An enormous amount, really.
A win over Toronto Saturday wouldn’t have changed anything about that. In fact, it would have only lessened Montreal’s odds of drafting first overall, which now stand at 9.5 per cent.
That could be the one positive here for Montreal, but it didn’t make standing across from the playoff-bound Maple Leafs any easier for the Canadiens to digest.
"I think you could see how excited they are," said Gallagher. "They have a chance to do something we don’t and that’s why you play the 82 games. Nothing else really matters. And you can just see: there’s nothing like playoff hockey, you can’t simulate that. And for us not getting that opportunity, it obviously sucks, but I think it’s a feeling you definitely have to remember and it’s just not something you want to feel very often."
It’s a feeling the Canadiens have been reckoning with for all of 2018. A loss to Toronto just put them out of their misery.