MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens were life and death, and then life again to earn their fourth win in their last five games and head into the bye week feeling good about themselves.
But their dramatic 5-4 shootout win over the Vegas Golden Knights on Saturday came with no illusions that they’re any closer to erasing two morbidly bad stretches of hockey that put them so far back in the Stanley Cup Playoff race.
This is a group that knows it stands six points behind the Atlantic Division’s third-placed team, the Florida Panthers, and seven points back of the Eastern Conference second wild-card-holding Philadelphia Flyers. And this final win before a seven-day break didn’t change the fact that they’ll have to win close to four of every five games they play from here to the end of the season to eclipse the 98-point mark, which is what the final team in the conference needed in 2019 to make the post-season.
Still, Carey Price picked himself up off the ice after recording the game-winning save on Riley Smith and did some elated version of a jumping jack in celebration on Saturday. This wasn’t a reaction that suggested he was merely relieved to come out on top after the Canadiens—who had jumped out to a 3-0 lead in the first period—squandered a 4-2 lead by allowing a goal to former Montreal captain Max Pacioretty with 1:58 to play in regulation and one to Smith with 7.5 seconds left on the clock.
“You can see how important it is to him to win the game,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien about his goaltender, who made 31 saves. “It’s what was most important.”
Never mind that some Montreal fans want this team to lose each and every one of its remaining 32 games to secure itself the best possible odds at a lottery pick for an NHL Draft that’s set to take place at the Bell Centre in June.
The thing is, this team knows how improbable it is that they’ll go on a miraculous run from here to the end, but they still believe they can give themselves a chance by adhering to the recipe that won them four of the last five—and 18 others prior to this last stretch.
“I think everyone knows the injuries we’ve had, and obviously (ones) to key players that have gone down,” captain Shea Weber started. “Guys have stepped up. And now when guys get healthy, the guys that have stepped up should be able to play even bigger roles but the other guys coming back in can boost us even more.”
We can’t really see how Brendan Gallagher’s return from lingering concussion symptoms can hurt, but there’s no guarantee he’ll be ready to go from Game 1 out of the break.
There’s little expectation Paul Byron—who skated for the first time on Friday since suffering a setback in his rehabilitation from knee surgery—will be ready to resume playing in a week’s time. And word got out on Saturday that the Canadiens aren’t likely to have Jonathan Drouin back from wrist surgery within the eight-to-10-week timeline that was initially estimated in the third week of November.
But if the Canadiens have shown us one thing, it’s that they won’t quit.
“We never said we’ve given up, and I think the message remains the same,” said Julien. “We’re going to fight right to the end, or until they tell us that it’s impossible. These are athletes being paid to do the work, and we have to play for the best hockey we can manage. That’s what we’re trying to do.”
When you see 36-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk not only scoring a goal in Saturday’s game to bring his total to eight points in eight games since signing a career-resurrecting contract with the Canadiens by beating his man to the net and scoring it on his second whack at a rebound in Marc Andre Fleury’s crease, it tells you to what end this group will continue to fight.
When you see the way the Canadiens regrouped in overtime after letting the late lead slip away—out-shooting Vegas 7-1 and out-hustling them to every puck—you know they just won’t lie down.
“I thought we’ve been playing some pretty good hockey (of late) and if we can continue to do that and continue to understand why we were successful and what is making us successful…” said Price.
“You just have to try to carry that momentum after the break.”
Tomas Tatar, who scored Montreal’s last goal in the shootout after Kovalchuk managed one and Nick Cousins and Joel Armia failed to, spoke to the gargantuan task the Canadiens have in front of them.
“It’s going to be really hard, and we know where we are in the race,” the 29-year-old said. “It’s up to us to (rise to) that challenge… We have to find consistency. It’s not going to be great every night, but we know we can’t be that far off our game. That’s the key, and once we come back we have to talk about it and we have to be solid. It’s going to be hard, we’re behind. It’s going to be a big challenge for us.”