MONTREAL— Moral victories won’t get you to the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
On Saturday, against the high-octane Toronto Maple Leafs, Pacioretty’s Canadiens nearly executed their game plan to perfection. They scored the first goal of the game, held a territorial advantage throughout, and with things tied 3-3 in the third period they made it virtually impossible for the Leafs to get anywhere near goaltender Carey Price.
End result: 4-3 Leafs in overtime, giving Montreal their fourth consecutive loss since opening the season with a shootout win over the Buffalo Sabres.
This one played out almost identically to the three that came before it, with the lone difference being that the Canadiens managed to score three times (instead of just once) in the game. They out-shot Toronto 32-22, they clogged the neutral zone and disrupted the flow of play with precision. Montreal also had the lion’s share of quality chances but still ended up on the losing side.
You can forgive Pacioretty for saying afterwards that there’s nothing satisfying about it.
"Give [Auston] Matthews two Grade-A [chances] and he buries both of them," said Pacioretty.
There’s a contrast there. The Leafs best player—the 20-year-old phenom who came to the Bell Centre with three goals and three assists in his first four games—made the difference in this one. First he was gifted the puck by Canadiens defenceman Jordie Benn and turned it into a goal by rifling a shot over Price’s glove as the netminder caught a rut in his crease attempting to get set.
And then in overtime, after Canadiens forwards Tomas Plekanec and Paul Byron failed to convert on a quality chance, William Nylander threaded a pass to Matthews, who sifted a rocket into the top shelf.
You knew the minute the puck got on his stick it was going into the net. Nothing has come as easily for the Canadiens through the first five games.
"You look at the way you played tonight," started Canadiens coach Claude Julien. "You played well enough, but a little mistake here or there. A little bad break. On the second goal Carey lost an edge or something and didn’t get enough time to get back in position, and you kinda look and say, ‘Geez, when are we going to get that break? Why are we always getting those kinda things?’"
The Canadiens averaged close to 39 shots per game over their first four of the season and scored a total of four goals, leading to losses against the Washington Capitals, New York Rangers and Chicago Blackhawks. Against Washington, their defence started the game 20 minutes too late. Against New York and Chicago, their offence failed to convert.
Against Toronto, Canadiens Jeff Petry, Alex Galchenyuk and Jonathan Drouin scored their first goals of the season, but a couple of others made some egregious errors that led to chances their superstar goaltender regularly covers.
But Price was more than a fraction off his game.
"I thought it might have been our best game of the year. We played very well," Price said. "Unfortunately I didn’t have my best game of the year. I think if I would’ve played better, we’d be looking at this a different way."
James Van Riemsdyk got Toronto even at 1-1 on a shot that went right through Price at the 7:32 mark of the first period. And after Matthews scored his fourth of the year while Price was off-balance, Patrick Marleau scored his third on a broken play that saw Price uncharacteristically scrambling in his crease to find the puck.
You know he’ll rebound, but the Canadiens have to be wondering what it’s going to take for them to put it all together on a given night.
"I think right now the only thing I would say is that when things aren’t going well, try and minimize the mistakes and obviously the goals against," said Julien. "For a week now, we’ve been talking about not being able to score. Well we scored three tonight. That’s a step in the right direction, but we gave up four. We’re going to keep working because I think at the end of the day there’s a pretty good team here that probably deserves a better record than it has but it’s not there. So we can’t be satisfied with, ‘We think we’re better than we are.’ We gotta just work our way out of it, and I think down the road it’ll make us a better team. But we need to turn this thing around sooner than later."
No kidding. With three games in four nights on tap for this week, out in California and against tough teams like the San Jose Sharks, Los Angeles Kings and Anaheim Ducks, doing things well without getting rewarded for the effort just won’t cut it.
Real victories are the only ones worth celebrating in this game.