WASHINGTON–It’s the misses that stand out in times like these. Not the effort which deserved to be rewarded but wasn’t.
This Montreal Canadiens season, which now depends on the Columbus Blue Jackets losing both their remaining games and at least one of them in regulation, will likely be defined by missed opportunities.
There was that game in Toronto back on Feb. 23, which the Canadiens came into just one point back of the Toronto Maple Leafs in the standings. They came out flying, established a 3-0 lead, and ended up squandering it in what turned out to be a 6-3 loss.
Then there was that one in Carolina on Mar. 24, which the Canadiens were leading 1-0 over the Hurricanes before a puck bounced off Jordie Benn’s shinpad for a goal with less than six minutes left, and another went off Brendan Gallagher for a 2-on-1 rush against in overtime that Andrei Svechnikov buried for the home team.
And that game in Columbus against the Blue Jackets on Mar. 28, the one that saw the Canadiens blow two one-goal leads and allow five unanswered goals. That was a killer.
They rebounded with sensational wins against the Central Division-leading Winnipeg Jets and the Presidents’ Trophy-winning Tampa Bay Lightning, and they brought their work boots to Washington for Thursday’s game against the reigning Stanley Cup Champion Capitals. But the misses piled up.
“I thought we had enough chances to score, but obviously their goalie’s pretty good as well,” said Canadiens leading goal scorer Brendan Gallagher, who had four shots on net and a game-high 10 attempts, but was held without a goal for a sixth straight game.
Yes, Braden Holtby did his part for Washington. He made 33 saves in the game — some of them outstanding. That was the case especially early on, when Montreal recorded the lion’s share of the chances.
But the Canadiens failed to bear down. They made Holtby look even better than he was on this night, and they also missed the net 19 times and had another 19 shots blocked.
In the first period, 18-goal scorer Andrew Shaw had a glorious chance at a goal, but missed before two players who have whiffed on far too many chances this season followed suit. First, it was 11-goal man Artturi Lehkonen from the slot, and then it was Victor Mete extending the NHL’s longest goal drought to 118 games with a shot from in close that pelted Holtby’s chestpad.
Then there was Joel Armia fanning on a perfect one-timer opportunity. A sight seen so often this season it’s no wonder he only managed 13 goals in 55 games.
Tomas Tatar, who scored 25 goals for Montreal prior to Thursday’s game, missed the net from a foot outside the crease when linemate Phil Danault set him up early in the second period. And then, in the first minute of the third, he found himself all alone in front of Holtby, but turned a dangerous chance into a benign one with a weak shot.
You want to talk about the misses that stand out now that the Canadiens are in this precarious position — they need those two losses from the Blue Jackets and they need to beat a Maple Leafs team they’ve lost to on all three occasions this season in order to make the playoffs — no one’s had more of them than Jonathan Drouin. The 24-year-old put up 17 goals in his first 55 games, but scored only one in the 24 he played before Thursday’s meeting with the Capitals.
Drouin had one shot on net on Thursday. It came at 17:18 of the third period. It was a wrist shot from in the clear that hit Holtby’s belly and bounced into his glove. A shot from a dangerous spot that was anything but dangerous. It was sad.
Speaking of sad, it was a cruel twist of irony that the only goal the Canadiens scored Thursday came from captain Shea Weber on the team’s sole power-play opportunity of the game. Prior to that, their power play had failed on 203-of-232 chances this season.
If things go as the odds suggest they will, with the Canadiens missing the playoffs despite potentially recording 96 points in the standings, running one of the worst power plays since the NHL started keeping power-play stats will have played a huge role.
It wasn’t effort that failed them in that department. Their effort was unimpeachable. It was their execution that left much to be desired, as it did in general in the 2-1 loss to Washington.
“I don’t think any guy in here didn’t want to win or didn’t give everything they had,” Weber said.
The thing is, they just couldn’t get the job done, whereas Washington’s Lars Eller and Nic Dowd profited on Montreal turnovers to score and help deliver a fourth consecutive Metropolitan Division win.
It left the Canadiens stunned, frustrated and ultimately in lament of what could have been.
“We worked hard up until now, but we were missing a bit tonight,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “Unfortunately, that was the case and they were a bit more opportunistic than we were, and that’s the difference.”
The Hurricanes were a bit more opportunistic, too, clinching a playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a 3-1 win over the New Jersey on Thursday.
Now the Canadiens have to hope the Blue Jackets are less so. And if they are, Montreal can’t afford to miss its opportunity Saturday.