Think back to the trade deadline, when Marc Bergevin seemed somewhat frustrated with the outcome of the day — the acquisition of Erik Gustafsson a pittance for what he had really hoped to accomplish.
As an NHL player, Bergevin spent 19 years on the blue line, playing for nine different teams and learning first-hand just how crucial defensive depth is when the games tighten up and the runs go deep into spring and bleed into summer. In his first eight seasons as Montreal Canadiens general manager, there was seemingly no asset he placed a bigger premium on, often saying, “You can never have enough defenceman.” And in this one — his ninth — he had his sights set on doing more than just adding warm bodies at the position.
Bergevin wanted an upgrade on the right side, a player who could slot in on the Canadiens’ third pair but easily move their way up without seeming out of place. The kind of player who could’ve helped fill the Montreal-sized pothole Jeff Petry’s absence left in their core in Monday’s 4-1, series-opening loss to the Vegas Golden Knights in Game 1 of this Stanley Cup semifinal.
Had Bergevin found one, the issue wouldn’t have been as glaring on this night. Instead, it was right under the spotlight — an inescapable reality that could prove costly as this series continues against a Golden Knights team in possession of the NHL’s most versatile arsenal.
“I think we’re all aware I won’t publicly comment on players belonging to other teams, but I can confirm I spoke with pretty much every team on the players who were available,” Bergevin said after Gustafsson was the last player to join the Canadiens, on April 12. "There were some that the media suggested were available who weren’t in the end, and there were others who were.”
Jon Merrill had come in a day earlier to serve as an insurance policy. Bergevin moved a 2021 fifth-round pick and a C-level prospect in Hayden Verbeek to acquire him from the Detroit Red Wings, and there was hope he could be a steady sixth or seventh defenceman next to a player who could be much more than that.
That player was never intended to be Gustafsson, who came over at half pay and for a 2022 seventh-round pick from the Philadelphia Flyers.
Had Bergevin landed Jamie Oleksiak — the six-foot-seven, left-shooting-but-capable-on-the-right-side defenceman who was retained by the Dallas Stars for a race to the playoffs they fell short of winning — we might not have seen the Golden Knights find their way to Carey Price’s crease more often than either the Winnipeg Jets or Toronto Maple Leafs were able to at any point with Petry filling out the top-four through all but one game of the first two rounds of the playoffs.
A successful push for New York Rangers outcast Tony DeAngelo would have been widely admonished given DeAngelo’s checkered reputation as a person known for a couple of racist outbursts and several conflicts with teammates, but Bergevin had to feel the issue was pressing enough to risk that. It was reported by Elliotte Friedman he was willing to make DeAngelo whole if the Rangers opted to buy him out, and he clearly felt this was an opportunity to mitigate the potential problem his team might eventually run up against.
But there it was, popping out to the eye while the Canadiens were in full control of Monday’s first period. Gustafsson, a power-play specialist, coughed up the puck at five-on-five and led Ben Chiarot, who was playing out of position on the right, to ice the puck.
Shea Theodore’s 100.8-m.p.h. blast through Gustafsson’s screen to break Montreal’s run of 447:08 without surrendering a lead in these playoffs was the second play to expose Petry’s absence.
The next two came with Canadiens lefty Brett Kulak on the right, where he proved to be at a deficit all season, which was a big part of the reason he was scratched for 10 games. One came from Alex Martinez, on a brilliant fake from Theodore, who left his partner a wide-open net to make the game 2-0 Golden Knights at the 2:18 mark of the second period.
The one scored by Mattias Janmark — after Cole Caufield potted his first-ever playoff goal on the power play — was the killer, with Kulak attempting to box him out but failing to tie up his stick.
The game was sealed on Nick Holden’s shot at 10:06 in the third, making it the seventh point the Golden Knights defence had contributed. It came with Chiarot and Shea Weber sucking wind after a long shift, after they had each already skated more than 22 minutes in the game.
The Golden Knights generated 18 shots from the blue line, they made it near impossible to get to Marc-Andre Fleury once they secured a lead (thanks in large part to the quality saves Fleury made before Theodore beat Price), and they attacked the weak links on Montreal’s blue line with all four of their forward lines.
They reaped the benefits.
“There’s a few situations where we can react better,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme after his team’s seven-game winning streak was busted.
There was enough of them to show just how hard the game can be without the defenceman who scored at a higher pace this season than he did in each of the last three seasons prior, over which he collected at least 40 points. The Canadiens missed Petry on the breakout, they missed him on zone entries, and they especially missed him in front of their own net, completing a duo with Joel Edmundson and a nasty top-four with Chiarot and Weber.
“He’s a key piece to our team,” said Edmundson. “He was our best defenceman all year and he’s obviously huge on the power play, too. We’re definitely missing him out there, but I think he’s right around the corner. So, hopefully he’ll get back soon.”
Just how effective Petry will be — after a freak accident saw him jam two of his fingers on his right hand through the camera slot along the glass in Game 3 against Winnipeg — is up in the air. But his presence alone would shift certain players back into their proper place and potentially help the Canadiens avoid making the few mistakes that can cost you a game.
If the 33-year-old isn’t available for Wednesday’s Game 2, Ducharme will have a complex decision to make to help the Canadiens better navigate his absence.
Does he trust Alex Romanov on the right after saying for most of the season he prefers him on the left? Can he go back to Kulak there? Would Merrill, who was injured in Game 5 of Round 1 against Toronto, be ready to step back in? Or would Ducharme be willing to turn to natural righty Cale Fleury, who spent the season with the AHL’s Laval Rocket after making a relatively successful debut with the Canadiens in 2019-20?
The coach is hoping Petry can withstand the pain and reach a level that presents a better option.
"We said that he could be back early in the series,” Ducharme said after Petry participated in Monday’s morning skate wearing a non-contact jersey. “With the info we have, we're confident he'll be back soon."
The Canadiens need him, because they don’t have anyone who can adequately replace him.