It was a year ago, towards the end of November, that the Montreal Canadiens had lost a season-high four straight games.
Staring down the barrel at a fifth-consecutive loss, their captain, Shea Weber, dressed for his first game of the season after missing the first 24 Montreal played.
The Canadiens lost 2-1 to the Carolina Hurricanes that night, but you knew with the way they played the game that their winless streak was stopping at five. They had 49 shots on net and 93 shot attempts — or more than double of Carolina had in both categories — and they even managed to come out on top in the hits category. If it wasn’t for one of the most miraculous performances of then-Hurricanes goaltender Curtis McElhinney’s career, they would have won their last game in November by a touchdown.
How did the Canadiens follow that game up?
They won 10 of 15 games in December.
Why am I telling you this?
Because it took the spark of Weber playing his first game in just under a calendar year to snap the Canadiens out of a slide that could have derailed their season completely. And that’s particularly relevant to remember now that they’ve dropped an eighth-straight game — which is something they haven’t done in 79 years — because there’s nothing dramatic they can pull from internally to snap them out of this funk.
There is no miracle call-up from AHL Laval that can inject the kind of confidence into Montreal’s game that Weber did a year ago. Jonathan Drouin and Paul Byron, two of the Canadiens’ most important players, are weeks away from returning from recent surgeries.
In plain English: The Montreal Canadiens are in desperate need of an intervention from general manager Marc Bergevin.
It’s been trending this way for some time, but the need for the GM to take hold of the situation took on a new level of urgency on Sunday in Boston, where the Canadiens played their hearts out against the NHL-leading Boston Bruins and came away from the game without earning a single precious point in the standings.
Deflating? No, this was demoralizing.
The Canadiens came to Beantown on the second half of a back-to-back. They had to play against a rested Bruins team, a team that had a 10-0-4 record at TD Garden and a team that was chasing its seventh-straight win, and they played about as well as they possibly could — and better than they have in just about any other game this season (aside from a 5-2 win over the Washington Capitals back on Nov. 15) — and they found a way to lose.
Montreal took a 1-0 lead in the second minute of the game when Joel Armia stripped Zdeno Chara of the puck and backhanded it by goaltender Tuukka Rask. It was one of 11 takeaways the Canadiens had to Boston’s one, which was just part of the reason they dominated the opening frame.
The Canadiens played a desperate second period and gave the Bruins just one quality opportunity to score — a power-play one-timer that goaltender Carey Price turned aside.
Montreal took its 1-0 lead to the third and carried it through the first 6:15 of the frame, but the game’s complexion turned on its first egregious error.
Gustav Olofsson, he of 57 career NHL games (playing in just his second game since March of 2018), allowed the NHL’s leading goal scorer, David Pastrnak, to slip behind him.
It took the most perfect shot Pastrnak could have uncorked to tie the game, and he delivered. Coming down the right wing, the big Czech wound up and blasted the puck into the top far-side corner of Price’s net for his 25th of the season.
Less than three minutes later, Canadiens forward Nick Cousins took a penalty 200 feet away from his own net — an indisputable holding call despite coach Claude Julien’s proclamation after the game that it was a bad call — and David Backes scored for the Bruins on the ensuing power play.
Jake DeBrusk put the nail in the coffin with 6:33 remaining — taking advantage of a tired Nick Suzuki and Cousins to create space for himself and score on Price.
Now a resurrection depends on what Bergevin can do immediately.
An impact trade would go a long way, but Bergevin’s hands might be tied on that front. You pay a significant premium to make an impactful acquisition at this time of year — 84 days out from the NHL’s trade deadline — and there is no team out there looking to throw you a bone while you’re entrenched in an eight-game winless streak.
Option B is a coaching change. To make one purely for a spark is as lousy a reason as you can find, but for a GM in such a precarious position it’s an option that becomes harder and harder to ignore.
Julien isn’t to blame for this slide, not that he doesn’t take his portion of responsibility for where the Canadiens find themselves. This is a result-based business and these are horrifically bad results. It’s not going to help his case that Dominique Ducharme, a most logical replacement, is standing on the bench next to him.
Maybe Bergevin will wait. The fact that he was supposed to arrive in Russia just minutes after the clock ticked down on Montreal’s loss to Boston could necessitate it.
Bergevin was scheduled well in advance for a meeting with 2018 second-round pick Alexander Romanov, the promising prospect whose contract with the KHL’s CSKA Moscow expires at the end of this season, and based on what I was told on Sunday that plan hadn’t changed.
Being there to convince Romanov to come to Montreal — and perhaps convince other coveted free agents to consider the Canadiens — is the type of move Bergevin has made to secure a bright future for this team. But if he doesn’t do something now for its present, we won’t be searching for reasons they become the third edition of the 110-year-old Canadiens to miss the playoffs for a fourth time in five years.
This GM is in his eighth season at the helm, and though he has persistently said throughout his tenure that he will not jeopardize the long-term future of the organization looking for quick-patch solutions, his patience is facing its biggest test.
All eyes are justifiably on him now.