NEW YORK – The Montreal Canadiens had their backs against the wall and a player who had 14 goals in 380 regular-season games and zero in 28 previous Stanley Cup Playoffs games was the only one to hit the back of the net for their team in their series-ending 3-1 loss to the New York Rangers Saturday night.
It says everything about why they were ill equipped to advance any further.
You could’ve scripted a lack of offence leading to their undoing. They had averaged less than 2.5 goals per game since Claude Julien took over on Feb. 14 and had scored only 10 goals in the five games that preceded their last of the year. They swung plenty but couldn’t land enough punches.
“I said you need some breaks along the way, and you have to earn them, but at the same time it doesn’t mean your guys didn’t work hard and compete hard,” said Julien. “I thought, overall, analytics are analytics and you can take them and do what you want with them, but I saw a lot of positive things from our end on how we created some chances and the number of grade-A chances we had.”
At the end of the day we just couldn’t put it past that goaltender and that’s what comes back to haunt you. You’ve got to make the most of your grade-A chances and, unfortunately, we ran into their best player, which I thought was their goaltender.”
Give credit where it’s due. Henrik Lundqvist had come into the series with questions swirling about his sub-standard season and his wobbly history against the Canadiens, and he answered the call, posting a .947 save percentage and an infinitesimal 1.70 goals-against average.
But Alexander Radulov, who led whatever offence the Canadiens generated, becoming the first player to score seven points in a series since Mike Cammalleri did it in 2010, wasn’t wrong when he said the blame falls on his team.
“It’s hard to win when you only score one goal, that’s the bottom line,” said Radulov. “We couldn’t get that bounce, maybe a lucky one or I don’t know. It’s not like we didn’t work hard. We really worked hard. Everyone played with heart, and sometimes it happens.”
When you look at how the Rangers took hold of this series after losing two of the first three games, it’s plain to see their best players rose to the occasion.
Rick Nash came through in the clutch in Game 4; Chris Kreider and Mika Zibanejad, who had both ghosted their way through the first four games, combined for a back-breaking overtime goal in Game 5; Rangers leading scorer Mats Zuccarello scored two goals in the second period of Game 6 to put the series on ice.
The response from the Canadiens never came.
“It’s such a grind,” said Brendan Gallagher. “The difference between winning and losing is just so marginal. They did a couple more things than we did, it wasn’t for a lack of effort from our group. You gotta be proud of the way the guys battled from start to finish here. It’s a tough feeling right now.”
It’s a feeling of what if.
What if Gallagher, who had scored just 10 goals this season, had capitalized on more than just one of the many opportunities he had created in the series? What if Tomas Plekanec, who also only scored 10 goals this season, had made magic with Montreal’s best chance of Game 6 – a tip play right in front of Lundqvist with 1:40 remaining? What if Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty, who scored 35 goals in the regular season, had buried any one of his 28 shots on goal for the series?
“My job is to bury those chances,” said Pacioretty. “I take full responsibility for not scoring a goal in this series. But the chances were there.”
He didn’t have any Grade-As in this one.
Pacioretty was sitting in the penalty box, serving seven minutes for cross-checking and fighting Jimmy Vesey, when Alexei Emelin stepped in from the blue-line, put the puck over Lundqvist’s shoulder to open the scoring in Saturday’s Game 6 at Madison Square Garden, and celebrated like he had never scored one before. He was credited with five shots on net in the game, and only two of them came from within 10 feet of Lundqvist – both from low-percentage angles.
Alex Galchenyuk, who came into the season with promise of being the team’s no. 1 centre after a 30-goal output in 2015-16, started the series on the fourth line, moved up to the third, and wasn’t able to generate anything more than one shot on net in Game 6 after going goal-less through the first five.
The disappointment of it all was wafting through the air in the Canadiens dressing room.
“I thought we had great chemistry this season, we had a lot of fun playing this year,” said Carey Price, who finished the series with a .933 save percentage and a 1.86 goals-against average. “Even throughout the series we had confidence the whole way through. It’s a bitter disappointment.”
“I felt like this was our best chance we’ve had since I’ve been here,” said Gallagher. “I like this team so much, I like what we brought up and down the lineup. We just didn’t get the job done.”
“As you get older, you realize that you might not get that many opportunities,” said 31-year-old defenceman Shea Weber. “You have to make the best of it and it’s tough to see this one go by.”
The offence failed when it mattered most, and a season that started off with so much promise – with the Canadiens collecting 13 wins in its first 15 games – ended in less than seven playoff games.