MONTREAL — It was a win that pushed the Vegas Golden Knights to 6-5 on their season.
They’ve been without leading scorers Max Pacioretty and Mark Stone for nine of their 11 games. Their best two-way centre, William Karlsson, broke his foot three games ago. One of their most versatile players, Alex Tuch, was traded to the Buffalo Sabres on Thursday for a superstar, in Jack Eichel, who won’t be available for at least three more months, and regular defenceman Zach Whitecloud missed his seventh game of the season on Saturday.
But the Golden Knights have still found a way to be on the right side of .500 so far.
On Saturday, they looked like they brought the Vegas Flu with them to Montreal. After touching down in the city early on Friday and cancelling practice at the Bell Centre, they stepped back onto the ice in this building for this game and started with one shot to the Canadiens’ 20 and zero goals to their two before first intermission rolled around.
The Golden Knights began the second period by taking a penalty. They gave up many quality chances and relied on Robin Lehner to turn miracles in their net, and then they got a power play and immediately scored to get on the board.
Jonathan Marchessault made it 2-2 five minutes later, and Dylan Coghlan scored his first of the season to make it 3-2 Golden Knights with eight minutes to go in the frame.
They added two empty-net goals late in the third to win 5-2. They were out-shot 38-18 in the game and, as Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme accurately noted, out-chanced 23-7.
The Golden Knights found a way to win because that’s what good teams do.
“I think when you have a two-goal lead like that, good teams find a way to lock it down,” said former Golden Knight draft pick Nick Suzuki, who is now Montreal’s top centreman.
What does it say of the Canadiens that they found a way to lose?
They’ve been without top goaltender Carey Price since the season started. They’ve been without captain Shea Weber, who’s too injured to continue his career. Joel Edmundson, another pillar on defence, suffered an injury right at the onset of training camp and won’t be available for another couple of weeks. Speedy winger Paul Byron is out until late December or early January, top two-way centre Phillip Danault and key leader Corey Perry play for other teams now, and everyone understood they were going to be in tough to make it work without all of them.
But the expectations were that they still had enough good pieces in place to remain somewhat competitive until Price, Edmundson and Byron could return.
The Canadiens haven’t found a way to win more than three of 13 games, though. They haven’t even found a way to get to overtime or the shootout in any of their 10 losses.
And somehow, Saturday’s game must have felt worse than any of them. It was completely demoralizing.
Under different circumstances, it was a game that could’ve inspired a lot of confidence in the process.
We asked backup-turned-starting goaltender Jake Allen how differently the Canadiens might have viewed this loss had it occurred with the team hovering around .500.
“One hundred per cent it changes everything,” he said. “(But) to be 3-10, it’s a little bit different. If we were right there on the .500 mark, or right around that where we’ve won some good games, played some good hockey… But it’s tougher to take right now when you look at all the teams ahead of you and you’re 3-10.”
When contemplating how his team might take the positives out of its performance and feel good about things going into the next one, Allen said, “It takes balls to do that, to be honest right now.”
He wasn’t wrong.
Neither was Ducharme when he said, “nine times out of 10, the win would be on our side.”
But whether or not the Canadiens can build on the way they played to finally generate the result they so desperately need is completely up in the air and frustration lingers.
Suzuki, who started out with zero points over his first four games but has turned it around with 12 in his last nine — including a goal and an assist against Vegas — was feeling it.
“We’ve got to find a way,” he said.
Those were the same words uttered by Brendan Gallagher, who had Montreal’s best chance to tie the game 3-3 in the dying seconds of the second period and is stuck on just two goals and three assists in his 12 games.
He also said, “We understand it’s early (in the season), but we also understand the hole we’re in.”
The Canadiens just haven’t found a way to tackle adversity the way the Golden Knights have.
Vegas came into the game with zero goals on 19 power plays and managed to break the ice with two against a Canadiens penalty kill that went from not allowing a goal in 13 consecutive playoff games at one point last summer to allowing 16 goals on the opposition’s first 47 attempts this season. They’ve managed to score 2.73 goals per game despite the gaping holes they're dealing with up front, while the Canadiens have averaged just two goals per game. And they started off losing four of their first five before winning five of their next six.
The Canadiens didn’t, and their season is quickly turning into a lost cause.