For an eighth time in eight Canadiens games that have gone past the third period, the outcome was a loss. And it doesn’t really matter that they had a chance to win this one with a 2-on-1 play that Jets goaltender Connor Hellebuyck stole away, because if the season ends with this team outside of a playoff position by one point, no one will say it came down to that one time they almost scored.
Canadiens leading scorer Jeff Petry had the game on his stick when Hellebuyck closed his pads to stifle Wednesday’s overtime opportunity. It was on his stick again when three Jets players swarmed him and forced him into a turnover while his two linemates went for a change instead of helping keep the pressure on a Jets trio that was spent. And Montreal coach Dominique Ducharme watched helplessly from the bench as Nikolaj Ehlers carried the puck into his team’s zone on a 3-on-1 and drove a third spike through his NHL coaching record in the 3-on-3 period.
“It is,” said Ducharme after the 4-3 loss. “I wish we had 5-on-5 overtime.”
At least the Canadiens might have made it to the shootout. After all, they were tied 3-3 in 5-on-5 play with the Jets in this one.
How the Canadiens got to overtime was emblematic of how they’ve played under Ducharme — inconsistently — with his 3-3-3-1 record since taking over for Claude Julien on Feb. 24 a reflection of it.
Phillip Danault, who scored one of their goals in Wednesday’s game, put it perfectly after Bergevin spoke on Tuesday, when he said, “When everyone buys in, and when we apply (our system), we give ourselves a chance to win every game, and when we don’t, we shoot ourselves in the foot.”
The Canadiens put a nine millimetre bullet through one on the first shift of the game, allowing Blake Wheeler to open the scoring. They pumped in a couple more flesh wounds before the halfway point, with giveaways the Jets forced allowing Kyle Connor to score two goals.
“We’ve played them enough, we know what kind of forecheck they’re coming with,” said Brendan Gallagher of the five meetings the Canadiens had with the Jets prior to this one. “They did a pretty good job of executing it, but you’ve got to make plays. That’s what it comes down to. Support needs to be there and you need to execute. They just did a better job forechecking than we did of breaking out. Definitely an area of the game that we weren’t good enough.”
And then the Canadiens went to second intermission down 3-1, patched themselves up and came out and played arguably their best period of the season.
Gallagher scored to cut the deficit to one after close to six minutes of pure Montreal dominance. And Tyler Toffoli scored his 18th of the season to tie the game with the Canadiens’ net empty and 1:25 remaining in regulation.
They were all desperate, engaged and playing exactly as they want to all the time.
“I saw a dedicated team,” said Danault. “A team that was hungry that didn’t accept to lose. The fight, as well, I really appreciate the effort that we all did together. And we all know the Jets are a really good team offensively, and we played really good defensively in the third and didn’t give up anything; we were stronger, we were winning our battles…”
And then the overtime boogeyman came out and snatched it all away from the Canadiens.
“The first thing was to take possession,” Ducharme said of his strategy in the extra frame. “With a faceoff favouring a lefty, we went with Phil, (and) the speed of (Paul Byron) and (Petry) who skates really well too. We took control, we waited for the right moment, and they gave us a chance to attack on a 2-on-1 and we took it.
“We get the puck back and that’s where a bit of panic set in. The (Jets) were stuck on the ice for 45 seconds when we started a change, but we should’ve been attacking even more since we had control. I was sending three forwards on the ice on the change, but we got impatient when we took control and lost the puck.”
It gave the Canadiens a 2-2-1-1 record on this road trip, over which they desperately needed to string “a streak of wins together,” as Gallagher put it.
The Canadiens are now 13-8-8, clinging to the fourth and final playoff spot of this seven-team North Division. Accumulating even just half the points they’ve left on the board in overtime or the shootout would have them within two points of top spot.
So, they either have to solve this now or find a way to put away games before they can be decided this way. Or do both.
At least the Canadiens feel capable.
“I think we’re going to keep getting better and better,” said Ducharme. “Every night, I feel confident against any team that if we go out there and we play the way we can play in our style of play that we can beat anyone. I have no issue with that.”
But Ducharme knows that an extra point here or there can make all the difference.
“I don’t know if someone’s going to run away,” he said. “You look around the division, competition is (close) every night and it’s hard to tell who’s going to win. Because you play teams many times in a row it’s tough to separate yourself, because it’s tough to beat the same team two times and three times in a row. And we can see it everywhere around the league, it’s some ups and downs. So I think it’s going to be a sprint for everyone until the end, and I think it’s going to be a dogfight until the end.”