Canadiens happy to put regular season to rest, recharge for playoffs

Montreal Canadiens stand for the national anthem before their final game of the season against the Edmonton Oilers in NHL hockey action Wednesday, May 12, 2021 in Montreal. The team has been criticized for not having enough Quebec born players in the lineup. (THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz)

MONTREAL — Just like that, this Montreal Canadiens regular season was put to bed, 118 days after it began with a six-game road trip across the country, laid to rest by a forgettable game that ran from 5pm to 7:29 p.m. ET and served as a mercy cry for all involved.

One of the shortest campaigns in NHL history felt excruciatingly long, and no one involved in it will miss it now that it’s gone. Least of all me, who spent almost as much time writing about the salary cap, emergency recall and coronavirus protocols as I did the team on the ice.

About the Canadiens, who pushed through the bumps and bruises, the brain-tickling nasal swabs, the four trips through Western Canada, the brush with Covid-19 that shut them down for a week, the nine-to-10-game series against each of the six other Canadian teams in empty buildings, the sacrificed social lives, the pandemic blues and having to run through the gauntlet of their end-of-season schedule without several of their most important players: they extended their winless streak to five games with a 4-3 overtime loss to Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and a fully-dressed Edmonton Oilers team.

Did you expect something different with battered players Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Eric Staal, Jeff Petry, Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen joining Carey Price (concussion), Shea Weber (upper-body injury) Brendan Gallagher (fractured thumb), Phillip Danault (concussion) and Jonathan Drouin (personal leave) on the sidelines?

With respect to Jesse Ylönen (playing his first NHL game), Alex Belzile (playing his second NHL game), Cayden Primeau (playing his sixth NHL game) and the defensive depth triumvirate of Jon Merrill, Erik Gustafsson and Xavier Ouellet, neither did I.

This team, as it was constructed, will most likely, with the exception of Drouin, finally be intact again next week when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. And for as much as I’d like to wax philosophical on what the last five games meant—with the Canadiens bearing little to no resemblance to what they’re supposed to be — I’m failing to see the connection between them and the ones that come next.

These games are indicative of nothing, and predictive of even less.

“We’re getting ready for Game 1 of the playoffs,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme, “and this has no impact on where we’re heading.”

How much of what we saw over 56 games will?

Through the first 10, the Canadiens showed us what they could be at their best, when they were excited, fresh and ready to play as GM Marc Bergevin described them before the season — a team that “means business,” is “here to win,” and capable of “playing any way you want to play.”

Then they slammed it into reverse, fell into some habits that resembled the failings of last season and cost Claude Julien, Kirk Muller and Stephane Waite their jobs.

Ducharme took over for Julien, Alex Burrows for Muller and Sean Burke for Waite, and right as the team appeared to be applying what the new coaches had instituted as a completely revamped system, Joel Armia caught a variant of Covid-19 and the NHL unplugged the Canadiens and rejigged their schedule to have them finish the season with 25 games in 44 days.

Gallagher’s loss, in the team’s fourth game back from break, was devastating. The injured list continuing to expand, a series of trade deadline moves handcuffing Ducharme from dressing his best lineup and the unrelenting schedule was torturous.

“I don’t think any of us will ever go through a stretch of hockey like this again,” said Ben Chiarot, who returned from a broken hand to play the final 16 games over 25 nights. “Everything about this year’s been unique, and this last stretch has been exactly that. It’s been unique, and a ton of hockey.

“It almost felt like we lived at the Bell Centre.”

An empty home that, on this final afternoon/evening, had players' wives and children in it for the first time since the puck dropped in January — and only because they’d be able to make it home before Quebec’s 9:30pm Covid curfew kicked in.

All to say this has been hard. Harder than any of us can possibly imagine, no matter what we’ve all personally been through since this wretched uninvited guest took residence in our lives.

It was hard for Ducharme, who repeated he’d always dreamed of coaching the Canadiens but not ascending to the job in the way he did. There’s not a chance he envisioned doing his tasks under these conditions—without being able to hold practice over consecutive days and without being able to push the players in a way he might have under normal circumstances.

“At a certain point, towards the end, I found that the guys were taking it,” he said, “but I had to pick my spots on when to push because you could see in their eyes there was only so much to take.”

The Canadiens lost more than they wanted to, and certainly more than they deserved to. But even if they bent a lot, they never broke, and they found a way to collect enough points to realize their first goal.

In the process, Nick Suzuki became a better player than the one who started the season. He finished it with two goals on Wednesday, bringing his total to 15 goals and 41 points, which was a nice bump from 13 goals and 41 points in 71 games of his rookie season a year ago.

Suzuki struggled coming out of the pause, but overcame to post 14 points over his last 11 games.

“Definitely has been a grind, especially when we had that week off and the games got even tighter,” the 21-year-old said. “So, I was just trying to learn how to prepare myself for each game, do the right things after each game to feel better the next day so it doesn’t catch up to you.”

Cole Caufield had a baptism by fire with that process. The 20-year-old signed out of the University of Wisconsin-Madison, immediately burned the first year of his entry-level contract, tore it up over two games in the American Hockey League, stepped onto a plane to Edmonton to embark on his first-ever big-league road trip, debuted in the league after a few practices, scored back-to-back overtime winners and collected a $25,000 bonus for appearing in his 10th game on Wednesday.

Caufield scored the opening goal and assisted on the team’s second one from Suzuki, bringing his totals to four goals and an assist. This was his best game - one that everyone should take with a grain of salt because, as Ducharme said, it wasn’t really played with NHL intensity — but he got better with each one prior and proved he can be an option come playoff time.

“I feel pretty comfortable out there,” Caufield said.

One would expect he’ll be more and more comfortable with some much-needed rest between now and Saturday and some valuable practice time between the weekend and when the Canadiens will begin their first-round series against the North Division champion Toronto Maple Leafs.

Same goes for every Canadiens player who slogged through this unprecedented season.

I say good riddance to it. Let the fun part begin!

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