DETROIT — It took a fifth consecutive loss — this one delivered by the NHL’s basement-dwelling Detroit Red Wings to complete a season-sweep — to finally extinguish whatever belief the Montreal Canadiens were clinging to.
This Montreal team came to Little Caesars Arena with the right intentions, they took a 2-0 lead early and carried a 3-1 lead to the third period, and then they imploded and lost 4-3.
They did this after blowing a 3-0 lead and losing 4-3 to the Dallas Stars on Saturday. They did it in spite of Canadiens coach Claude Julien placing an extra emphasis before the game on having the pride to not be swept by the NHL’s worst team. They did it even as their opportunity to gain ground in the Atlantic Division was right there for the taking, with the third-place Toronto Maple Leafs losing 5-2 to the Pittsburgh Penguins on the same night.
And it’s not because, as Canadiens forward Paul Byron put it after his first game in over three months, "They just wanted to win the game more than we did."
Shea Weber didn’t come back from an ankle sprain well ahead of schedule because he didn’t want it badly enough. Jonathan Drouin wasn’t playing on his sprained ankle, and with the pain that’s come with pushing his way back from a November wrist surgery, because he didn’t want it.
And though the egregious errors Montreal made to puke this game up to the Red Wings may have appeared like a lack of effort, there was something deeper that led to this devastating, heartbreaking, gut-wrenching and unacceptable loss.
Belief has to be rooted in some form of reality and the Canadiens were grasping at fantasy to keep it alive after losing four must-win games in a row prior to this one. And you can’t just manufacture belief based purely on intangibles.
"It’s obvious there’s a lack of confidence," said Julien.
How could there not be?
It certainly wasn’t a vote of confidence when Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin traded pending free agent defenceman Marco Scandella to the St. Louis Blues as the team was loading up the bus to get from the hotel to the rink in Detroit. It was a cold dose of reality.
"It’s always tough to see a guy get traded, but it’s the nature of the business," said Nate Thompson, who scored Montreal’s first goal of the game — and possibly his last as a Canadien if he gets moved as expected between now and the Feb. 24 trade deadline.
"Berge does what he’s got to do to make this team better in his opinion," said Byron.
There’s no doubt it was best for the team, in Bergevin’s and just about everyone else’s opinion, to move Scandella to the Blues for a 2020 second-round pick and a conditional 2021 fourth-round pick. Because holding onto him for this unlikely (bordering on impossible) push to the playoffs would have made no sense when it was just over six weeks ago that the Canadiens gave the Buffalo Sabres a 2020 fourth-round pick to acquire him.
And that same sense of reality is finally catching up to the coach and his players, for none of them talked about immediately filing this pitiful loss to the Red Wings away and getting back on the quest.
Actually, they wallowed in it afterwards. Understandably.
Weber could barely answer a question audibly he was so distraught by the outcome.
Thompson said, "We shot ourselves in the foot. I thought we had complete control of this game."
"When you lose like that, it sucks," he added.
And then there was this from Byron: "We’re 10, 11 points out of the playoffs now (the Canadiens are eight points behind the Maple Leafs and 10 points back of the Carolina Hurricanes for the Eastern Conference’s second wild-card position), and we’ve played more games than anybody else. The difference for us in not being in the mix with everybody else is the games like tonight."
There have been so many of them this season, and this latest one left Julien completely exasperated.
"We’ve been searching for a team that’s going to play the same way for 60 minutes and we just don’t seem capable of doing it," he said. "It’s frustrating, and I would say it’s unacceptable too. If we want to get better as a team, if we want to be a winning team, we have to be able to play the same way over 60 minutes. We’re certainly not doing it lately, and it’s terrible. If we play the third the way we played the other two periods, there’s no concern and we win the game. But we weren’t able to do it."
And if the Canadiens can’t do it against this sorry group in Detroit, this team which has won just 11 of 58 games played against the rest of the league, they aren’t going to magically do it in 17 of the last 20 games — many of them against teams gearing up for the playoffs — like they would need to in order to pull off a miracle.
It’s likely they’ll show up to the rink in Washington ahead of their game against the Capitals on Thursday and talk about getting back to the business of continuing to hope and continuing to push.
But it seemed painfully obvious, at least throughout the third period and for few minutes after Tuesday’s game, that they had finally accepted their fate.