TORONTO — OK, so we agree that it was a good thing Montreal’s kids helped carry them through the Pittsburgh Penguins in the Stanley Cup qualifying round.
Confidence earned, balance achieved, valuable experience gained and all that jazz.
But the chances of the Canadiens getting by without Carey Price, Shea Weber and Jeff Petry playing at the height of their abilities were practically zero. And if you had told me before the series started that they’d win in less than five games without a goal from Tomas Tatar or Brendan Gallagher, I might have questioned your objectivity.
Because that old saying about your best players needing to be your best players rings true. Just about always, but certainly for this series the Canadiens are about to undertake — against a top-to-bottom beast of a Philadelphia Flyers team that’s as good as, if not better than, any other team in this tournament. A Flyers team Jakub Voracek labelled the best of the eight ones he’s been a part of since 2012, one he unabashedly labelled a clear favourite in this series.
You can understand Canadiens coach Claude Julien downplaying the need for his top guns to come firing out of the gate.
“I would say that’s kind of overrated, because, right now, all we’re thinking about as a team is, anyone who can help us, we’ll take,” he said on Tuesday, and no one would argue about that being a good mindset to adopt at this time of year – playoff time, not August.
Also, it serves the coach no purpose to put any extra pressure on players who’ve gone as long without scoring in games as meaningful as these.
About that… Tatar’s last playoff goal came on May 14, 2018, exactly 389 days after Gallagher scored his last one. The two of them, who scored 22 goals apiece to lead the Canadiens in the regular season, have combined for two goals in their last 22 playoff games (one in 12 for Tatar and one in 10 for Gallagher).
Somewhere, in the recesses of their minds, they know. Not that they’re digging back there to access that right now.
“I think I had my chances, I was just a little unfortunate not to put the puck in,” Tatar said about his most recent performances. “Obviously, it looks a little different on the sheet but, to be honest, I’m not really concerned about that. We’re here as one team and we did go through and I think that’s the part that we should focus on. Obviously, it looks better when these stats are higher. But we had a role that series (matching up against Sidney Crosby’s line) and I think we did a good job and we advanced.”
True. But Tatar also knows he’s being paid $5.5 million to score goals.
“Each player wants to be a difference-maker,” the 28-year-old said Tuesday. “If you look at the makeup of our team, that’s the way we’re built. There will probably be a new guy stepping up each and every single day, each game, if we’re going to have success. That’s what we’re going to need throughout our lineup, is different guys playing the role of hero.”
You’re up, bud.
You have to think the dam will break. Gallagher had 17 shots in four games against the Penguins, including nine in Game 1. He’s always been a volume shooter, but he’s also a volume scorer; a two-time 30-goal scorer who has eclipsed the 20-goal mark in four of his eight NHL seasons; a guy who scored 19 twice, and had 15 in the 48-game 2012-13 season.
Tatar has put up five seasons of 20 goals or more, and he’s coming off the two most productive seasons of his career.
So you can understand why neither player is particularly rattled at this stage of the game.
“Obviously, the young guys stepped up and played awesome for us, scored some big goals at big times,” said Gallagher. “Personally, there’s definitely areas where I can put the puck in the net, but I never really saw the game that way. There’s times where I had very good chances to score, didn’t capitalize, and that’s kind of the way the game works.
“As long as the chances are coming [and] you’re doing the right things to earn those things, eventually you put that pressure on yourself to put them in the net when the team needs it. But it was nice last series [that] obviously it wasn’t very needed.”
Now it is. This is when your top dogs need to run.
Price stopped 95 per cent of the shots he faced against Pittsburgh and he’ll have to be every bit as good against Philadelphia. Weber averaged 25:53 per game and registered two goals and four points in an immaculate performance against the Penguins and he’ll have to be even better against a Flyers team that promises to make the game harder for him. Ditto for Petry, who scored two game-winning goals and was arguably Montreal’s best player outside of their crease over the last four games.
No matter who he lines up with or how much ice time he gets, Max Domi has to do a lot better than zero points. Jonathan Drouin has to score more than one goal. And Joel Armia, who was, at times, the Canadiens’ most dominant offensive player this past season, knows he’s got a lot more to bring to the table than penalty minutes.
“I know I can play a lot better,” the big Finn said. “I’m just trying to work every night, and trying to do my best. I know I haven’t been scoring, but there have been a lot of guys on our team who have been stepping up and scoring – our young guys. I’m just trying to work every night and do my best, and I know I’ll produce something along the way.”
“We’re looking for contributions from everybody and that’s what we’re going to need if we’re at least going to have some success in this next round,” said Julien.
Without some goals from Gallagher and Tatar, that success is going be limited.