MONTREAL — There are two numbers that stand out most in the wake of yet another loss for a Montreal Canadiens team whose playoff hopes appear to be hinging on an improbable (bordering on impossible) run from here to the end of the season.
The first is No. 10, which is the amount of hits two Canadiens players fighting to keep their NHL careers alive combined for in the game. The second number is two, which is the amount of goals the Canadiens were able to score despite putting up 31 shots, 58 attempts and a heat map in the offensive zone that looked like this:
Let’s go back to that first number. Those 10 hits — four of them from 31-year-old Dale Weise and six of them from freshly signed 36-year-old Ilya Kovalchuk — were 10 of the 42 the Canadiens had in their 3-2 loss against the Winnipeg Jets on Monday. A team the Canadiens out-possessed and outplayed. Each player had at least double the amount of hits of any Jets player, and that’s despite the fact that the Canadiens had the puck for the majority of the time they were on the ice (Weise was a team-leading 72.22 per cent Corsi for, and Kovalchuk wasn’t too far behind at 54.84 — even though he played the bulk of his ice-time against Winnipeg’s top line and its top defensive pairing).
It was also Weise who opened things up for the Canadiens with the first of his two shots in the game. It bounced off the inside of Connor Hellebuyck’s pad and dribbled into the corner instead of into the net behind him, but it was the first of several scoring chances generated by Montreal.
And way later in the game, Kovalchuk was in the slot all by himself when a puck passed to him by linemate Phillip Danault hit something and bounced over his stick. This was mere seconds before he had attempted to stab a loose puck through Hellebuyck, but ended up missing it and projecting himself full force into the net.
It was Kovalchuk who hustled down the boards, won a battle and dislodged a puck that eventually found its way to former Jets defenceman Ben Chiarot for the goal that got the Canadiens to down 2-1 in the second period. And it was Kovalchuk who tracked his way back to the middle of Montreal’s zone to knock Jets forward Kyle Connor off the puck and send linemate Tomas Tatar, as well as Chiarot, on the break that got the team to 3-2 with 8:13 remaining in the third.
Kovalchuk and Weise. Two players who symbolize what the Canadiens are right now without top-sixers Brendan Gallagher, Jonathan Drouin and Joel Armia, not to mention top-nine forward Paul Byron. They’re a team putting in as respectable an effort as anyone could expect, but one that can’t seem to mitigate an obvious talent deficiency at the moment.
While it was imaginable that Kovalchuk might find a way to finish a chance or two on a line with Danault and Tatar, and in a role that saw him play close to 20 minutes in his first game since Nov. 9, it was completely unexpected to see him compete as hard as he did away from the puck.
“He’s out there running guys over, so you see that effort,” said Weise, who may as well have been talking about himself rather than Kovalchuk.
The injuries to the Canadiens brought the Manitoban up from his banishment to the American Hockey League, and there was plenty of doubt he’d make anything good of the opportunity.
Weise probably won’t get much credit elsewhere for defying expectations, but he’s doing the best he can with what he has.
“To score a goal would have been huge for the team,” Weise said.
It also would have been huge if Artturi Lehkonen’s tip in the second period hit the crossbar and went in instead of pinging off of it and rolling over the net. It would have been huge if fourth-liner Nate Thompson’s tip from eight feet out had snuck through Hellebuyck instead of hitting him in the shoulder, but the 35-year-old who has 60 goals in 740 NHL games isn’t being paid to score.
The guys who are currently aren’t available. And that’s a killer for this hard-working Canadiens team.
Kovalchuk was brought in to help stem the tide in their absence, but three of his four shots in the game came from between 41 and 58 feet out. And his best chances were the missed plays described above and a tip from 12 feet out that Hellebuyck covered.
Still, the fans at the Bell Centre chanted “Kovy, Kovy,” after the big Russian pasted Jets defenceman Sami Niku into the boards and knocked him over in the second period.
“It was nice,” Kovalchuk said. “I’ll give them more reasons to chant that name, for sure.”
Perhaps he will. With the work he put into this game — an I’ll-show-you-what-I-can-do effort as much as it was a middle finger to a Los Angeles Kings team that walked away from his three-year, $18.75-million contract less than halfway through the deal — there’s hope Kovalchuk can continue to be better than expected. At least in the short term.
As for the Canadiens, who weren’t able to overcome mistakes from rookies Nick Suzuki and Cale Fleury on this night, hope is hanging by a thread that’s stretching its way toward a breaking point.
Even so, Montreal coach Claude Julien was right when he said after Monday’s loss that “the guys aren’t quitting.”
Unfortunately, that’s of little consolation right now.