Jordan Weal placed himself at the left faceoff circle and waited for a pass from Joel Armia.
The puck came straight into the righty’s wheelhouse, he stopped it and picked his spot, but shot it right off the crossbar and out of play.
In the second period, Armia was parked in front of the net, and the big Montreal Canadiens forward banked a backhand off the far-side post.
In the third, teammate Nick Suzuki corralled a puck in the slot, brought it to his forehand and had a gaping net to shoot at with Detroit Red Wings goaltender Jonathan Bernier swimming around his crease and in a most-vulnerable position. Suzuki couldn’t believe the outcome.
“It should be in the net for sure,” he said afterwards. “I don’t know, I’m still shocked that I didn’t put it in. He got his pad on it, but I definitely had enough room to put it in.”
The Canadiens had 43 shots on net. They weren’t all top-quality, but they registered enough good ones to skate away with more than one goal — and certainly more than zero points in the standings.
Instead, they suffered a 2-1 loss to a Detroit team that came to the Bell Centre with just eight wins in 31 games, and only one in their last 13.
The Canadiens couldn’t believe that outcome, either.
Talk about missed opportunities. This is a Montreal team that has now gone 7-8-2 against teams not holding down playoff positions and, in the grand scheme of things, that result can have a devastating effect on their own playoff hopes come April.
“For the first two periods, we were more-or-less soft,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien after the game.
Not exactly what you want to hear about yourself if you’re a player slogging it out night-in and night-out, but it’s hard to dispute when you review the tape.
The speedy Red Wings had an easy pass up the ice through the first 40 minutes, they won the majority share of the one-on-one battles despite losing the shot-battle decisively, and they carried a 1-0 lead after Dylan Larkin stripped Canadiens strongman Shea Weber of the puck and fed an unchecked Tyler Bertuzzi for an easy goal.
We asked Julien on Saturday morning what his message would be to his team before facing this downtrodden Detroit group.
“They played extremely well against Winnipeg (a 5-2 win over the Jets on Thursday),” the coach said. “They’re a good skating team, they move the puck well. They came in here beginning of the season, played a really solid game. I thought they played really, really well. Although we may not have been at our best, they were really good. So there’s all the reasons in the world to take these guys seriously and if you believe in parity — which we do — there’s no reason to take these guys lightly.”
We wouldn’t go as far to say the Canadiens did in fact take the Red Wings lightly, but our opinion of it doesn’t quite matter as much as theirs.
“We have to find ways to win these games,” Weal said.
“We didn’t test their goalie enough,” said Canadiens assistant captain Brendan Gallagher, who took two (indisputable) offensive-zone penalties — including one with 3:32 remaining and the Canadiens chasing down a 2-0 lead.
Again, we think they did, but we won’t argue it given that the Canadiens couldn’t find the back of the net through the first 59 minutes and change — and against the most generous team in the NHL.
Former Red Wing and current Canadiens leading scorer Tomas Tatar scored with 47 seconds left to get Montreal to within one, but it was too little too late.
There was practically steam coming out of the Slovak’s ears in the Montreal dressing room after the game.
Moments later Julien stood at the podium in the Bell Centre conference room and said that another loss suffered at home — rendering Montreal’s record to 8-8-3 in front of their fans — was unacceptable.
“We really aren’t in a bad spot (the Canadiens rank third in the Atlantic Division and are three points back of the second-place Buffalo Sabres),” Julien said.
But then the coach offered this sobering thought: “We also have to have some awareness that you know eventually there’s some teams (the Toronto Maple Leafs are tied in points and the Tampa Bay Lightning are one point back with two games in-hand) that are going to catch fire and I’d like that to be our team. There’s a battle there. We’re not in a bad spot, but there’s a real battle that every night there’s some movement there in the standings, and we’re in that situation right now that if we don’t win on a regular basis we’re going to slide down. And I’d like us to win a little bit more on a consistent basis so that we can move up.
“I guess that’s the pressure that every team in this league has to go through now. It is what it is; there’s no such thing anymore as, ‘Let’s just play 82 games here and we’ll be fine.’ Every night’s a big night and every win’s a big win, so we have to look at it that way and make sure we’re ready to bounce back (on Tuesday) in Vancouver.”
The game against the Canucks will be the first of seven straight for the Canadiens on the road. They know things will only get harder from this point forward.
It’s what makes a loss like the one they suffered on Saturday that much harder to digest.