NEW YORK— What a fascinating development it was to see the player fans have been derisively referring to as the “Tank Commander” score two goals, including one in the final 31 seconds of play, to temporarily keep the Canadiens from clinching the best odds at the first overall pick in the 2022 NHL Draft in their 81st game of the season.
Jeff Petry had been the subject of their ire all season, and even in performing his best, he was unlikely to change that.
But hey, in spite of a 4-3 win over the Rangers—if you want to call this version of them that, with Artemi Panarin, Chris Kreider, Mika Zibanejad, Ryan Lindgren, Adam Fox, Jacob Trouba, Andrew Copp and Igor Shesterkin all missing from the lineup—at Madison Square Garden, the Canadiens remained in last place once Wednesday night’s slate of games wrapped. The Arizona Coyotes later locked them into that spot with a come-from-behind 4-3 overtime win over the Dallas Stars, so fans can lay off Petry for a minute.
He deserves some support from a group that lobbied vehemently for him to be a Norris Trophy finalist just last season.
Things turned at the start of this one, with Petry not stumbling out of the gate so much as falling hard on his face out of it. His performance was an unmitigated disaster—following three consecutive seasons up of 40-plus points, including 42 in 55 games last season—with just six points through his first 38 games.
Petry’s lack of offence was troubling, but not nearly as concerning as his propensity to make the kind of colossal errors not seen from him since his first seasons with the Edmonton Oilers.
The reaction from Canadiens fans to all of that was just as harsh as it was from Oilers fans back then, and it only grew harsher when it became public Petry had requested a trade out of town.
The 34-year-old tried to ignore the noise, but it a certain point it became deafening and compounded his struggles.
“It’s not like I’m showing up to the rink every day and wanting to play the way I was,” Petry said after Wednesday’s win. “I was trying to get through that and trying to find my game, and to hear some of the things is tough.
“But for me it was just trying to continue every day to show up. Like I said, it wasn’t my goal at all this year was to show up and play the way I did at the start of the year. So, for me it was just kinda pushing through and trying to find that game that I had the previous three years.”
It started to kick in after Martin St. Louis took over as coach in February, but it wasn’t long before Petry tweaked a back injury suffered earlier in the season.
It knocked him out of action for two weeks.
He returned on April 9, in Toronto, and has since collected 10 points in his last 10 games. The two goals he scored against New York were his 25th and 26th points—registered in the 67th game of his season—and they left Canadiens coach Martin St. Louis signing his praises afterwards.
“I guess it’s been a marathon, so to speak,” St. Louis started. “Every season feels like it, but I think he’s sprinting to the finish line after a long race and I like that. He’s not just coasting through it. I think he’s putting himself in a better mental situation with his season. I think that can carry through to the summer and whatnot, so I’m really happy for him.”
That’s what all the Canadiens have been playing for down the stretch, even with the losses piling up and careening them towards securing their best chance to choose first overall in the draft for the first time since 1980.
It’s been a successful process for many of their players—most of them younger, like Nick Suzuki, who scored his 60th point of the season on Mike Hoffman’s third-period goal to put Montreal ahead 3-2 with 7:52 remaining—and one that will impact the team’s short- and long-term future.
In Petry’s case, he’s making it easier for the Canadiens to move him in the off-season despite his contract still owing him $6.25 million over each of the next three years.
He’s also redeeming his self-confidence, which was severely damaged and appeared to be shattered before this turnaround.
“I don’t know the exact specific time (when things turned), but it’s definitely been a long time coming and I’m glad that I’ve kinda found it and was able to finish the year after a tough start,” Petry said. “Just to find that and kind of build off of that to know coming into next year what I need to do.”
Scouts have noticed.
One we spoke with at Wednesday’s game said, “He looks like the same player who was really important for the Canadiens over the last number of years.”
Another we touched base with after Petry played steadily in losses to the Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins over the weekend said, “He actually stood out to me in both games.”
“His game’s not perfect, but I don’t think it ever was,” that scout continued. “Just seems more confident, sure of himself. Not overthinking, just playing.
“You can see it on the breakouts and the skating. And look at how much more engaged he is in the offence. And you’re not noticing him for the wrong reasons right now.”
St. Louis remarked the same thing after Wednesday’s game.
“I find he’s been giving us some very good hockey lately, and one thing that’s blatantly obvious to me is he’s more involved offensively and he’s skating more,” the coach said. “You can see he’s got the talent when he’s got space and that he can skate, has a good shot and has a good offensive side. I’m happy with what I’ve seen from him.”
Canadiens fans might be harder to win over, and Petry knows that.
At least he’s done his part to rewrite some of what could be his final chapter with this team.
“I mean, for myself personally, no matter what the situation is moving forward, for me as an athlete, I wanted to bring my best every night and to find that again,” Petry said. “And there was a lot of things that I was trying—different approaches—and just trying to battle every day to try to find that game and have that game consistently. Like I said, I’m feeling a lot better about my game.”
It's good to see him in command of it.