It’s hard to imagine Michel Therrien dodging this bullet.
His Montreal Canadiens, who have been playing with a relatively healthy lineup for the first time in months, have now lost six of their last seven games—including a 4-0 loss to the Boston Bruins on Sunday.
The Bruins, who gave goaltender Tuukka Rask his first ever home win against the Canadiens in the regular season, hadn’t beaten Montreal at TD Garden since January of 2012. They accomplished that task easily on Sunday, sending their most bitter rivals reeling into the bye week.
Talk about adding insult to injury.
Both teams now have five days off, and while Bruce Cassidy can rest easy having secured a three-game winning streak to start his career behind Boston’s bench, you have to wonder how Therrien will close his eyes without having nightmares.
The Canadiens’ coach was spared last season, with his team dropping from first in the NHL as of Dec. 1 to 22nd overall by season’s end in star goaltender Carey Price’s 70-game absence. His boss, general manager Marc Bergevin, pointed the finger at himself and then made several major changes over the off-season to better equip his team to face whatever challenges the 2016-17 season would present.
Superstar defenceman P.K. Subban was shipped to the Nashville Predators for one of the league’s most established leaders in Shea Weber. Lars Eller was traded to Washington so that picks could be spent on Chicago’s feisty forward Andrew Shaw. And uber-talented Alexander Radulov was brought over from the Kontinental Hockey League on a one-year contract.
Through a 13-1-1 start to 2016-17—and a very successful first half that pushed the Canadiens to the top of the Atlantic Division by a healthy margin—Bergevin lauded the character of his team. They fought through long-term injuries to key players like defenceman Andrei Markov, top centre Alex Galchenyuk and sparkplug wingers Brendan Gallagher and Shaw. They did so during the most jam-packed portion of their schedule.
But no team in the league has been worse than the Canadiens since the beginning of February.
They’ve allowed the Bruins, who have also played 58 games, to get to within six points of them in the standings. Ditto for the Ottawa Senators, who hold four games in hand—two of which will be made up while Montreal is idle over the coming week. The Toronto Maple Leafs, who are nine points back of the Canadiens, will also make up two of their four games in hand this week.
There’s no other way to look at it: the Canadiens are at a crossroads.
Bergevin may not fire Therrien immediately, but if the team doesn’t pull a complete 180 out of the bye week, you have to think he’s as good as gone. Without a single player on the injured reserve list, and with the team coming off much-needed rest, there won’t be an excuse for Therrien to fall back on.
You also have to think Bergevin is going spring into action on the trade market to shock his team back to life. The GM has been reluctant to sacrifice futures for big pieces in the past, but the team’s window to win will be harder to keep open once Price’s contract—which carries a manageable $6.5 million cap hit through 2017-18—expires.
His time to strike is now, but we’re three weeks ahead of the NHL’s trade deadline and we’ve yet to see a head-turning deal made. Meanwhile, four long-tenured coaches in Florida’s Gerard Gallant, the Islanders’ Jack Capuano, St. Louis’ Ken Hitchcock and Boston’s Claude Julien have all been shown the door.
Therrien wasn’t interested in delving deep into the sad state the Canadiens currently find themselves in after the shellacking in Boston. Suffice it to say he wasn’t impressed with the way his team folded after a strong first period, allowing Bruins captain Zdeno Chara to easily walk in for a shorthanded goal to make it 2-0 in the second, and allowing two more goals to get past Price without much of a push back in the other direction.
“We put ourselves in a hole we weren’t able to climb out of,” he told reporters in French. When asked about his concerns over the team’s play in recent weeks, he simply said, “The key for all of us is to profit from this break.”
“I think it’ll do the players some good, physically and mentally, to regroup for the next game,” he added.
But it’s anybody’s guess as to whether or not the Canadiens will be able to rebound quickly. After five days off and only one practice on Friday, the Canadiens will rush back into things with a matinee game at the Bell Centre against the Winnipeg Jets next Saturday.
It’s going to be a stressful time for Therrien in between now and then. Even if he gets out of the way of this bullet, it’s only realistic to assume he’s on borrowed time until the next one hits.