This was an unenviable task for any team, let alone the 25th ranked Montreal Canadiens.
Coming off a 4-1 loss to the Edmonton Oilers in their last game before the Christmas break, the Canadiens boarded a flight to North Carolina just after 9 a.m. Wednesday, arrived there at about 1 p.m., and took to the ice for the first time in four days for warmup at 6:25 p.m. Not exactly routine.
By the time the clock read 9:33 p.m., the Canadiens were headed to the locker room to peel off their equipment and answer questions about a 3-1 loss to the Hurricanes.
Let’s get into our takeaways on why things ended up that way.
Flu bug added one more obstacle to overcome
If it wasn’t bad enough that the Canadiens had some rust to shake off, several of their players were battling flu.
Defenceman David Schlemko didn’t travel to Carolina with the team, and some others on the blue line were ailing to the point that it was a consideration forward Nicolas Deslauriers might dress as a defenceman.
It didn’t come to that.
Call-up Brett Lernout played on a pair with Jakub Jerabek, Joe Morrow and Jordie Benn played together, and Jeff Petry played over 25 minutes on a pair with Karl Alzner. They all struggled at different points of the game, with the Hurricanes obtaining several quality opportunities and more than their share of odd-man rushes.
Surely it wouldn’t surprise anyone that Montreal’s last line of defence, goaltender Carey Price, was the only reason this wasn’t a laugher of a game…
…because things were out of control from the start.
The Finnish winger made no mistake one-timing the puck under the crossbar to open the scoring for the Hurricanes.
Price faced nine other quality chances of that nature and stopped all of them before the Canadiens recorded their second shot of the game. He was sensational on the other six shots he faced in the frame before finishing the night with 33 saves.
Galchenyuk giveth, Galchenyuk taketh away
It was in the 26th minute of play that Canadiens forward Alex Galchenyuk took a sharp cut to the inside of the ice and blasted a wrist shot over Cam Ward’s glove to tie the game 1-1.
It was Galchenyuk’s 13th point in his last 14 games, scored on the type of play that exemplified what kind of game-breaking talent he has.
But an undisciplined hooking penalty from Galchenyuk at 8:21 of the third period gave the Hurricanes a chance to take the lead, and it was Sebastian Aho who capitalized on it by beating Price on a second rebound opportunity.
Another game without a goal from Max Pacioretty
He’s always been a streaky scorer, but we’ve never seen the Canadiens captain struggle this much to put the puck in the back of the net.
In the first period, Pacioretty had a glorious chance to do exactly that—when he found himself all alone in front of Ward and did everything short of lighting the lamp.
He got the puck in the high slot, he faked the shot, deked to his left and came within an inch of getting the puck over Ward’s blocker.
But that was as close as the perennial 30-goal scorer got in this one, and his frustration must be boiling over with just one goal to speak of in his last 19 games.
Pacioretty played a total of 17:56, recorded just one more shot attempt and finished the game at minus-2.
The gap is getting wider
While the Canadiens were losing to the Hurricanes, the Boston Bruins were in the midst of completing a 5-1 win over the Ottawa Senators to vault ahead of the Toronto Maple Leafs for second place in the Atlantic Division.
Montreal now trails Boston and Toronto in the playoff race by nine points, and by eight points for the second wildcard spot after the New York Rangers’ shootout win against the Washington Capitals. And things aren’t about to get easier.
The flu-ridden Canadiens are on their way to Tampa to take on the NHL-leading Lightning on Thursday night.