In a vacuum, this game was lost by the Montreal Canadiens because they sat on a 1-0 lead with 20 minutes to play — and with a couple of the world’s purest hockey players lined up across from them, ready to make them pay for it.
Leon Draisaitl helped apply the pressure to start, but Connor McDavid, held to zero goals and just two measly points through five games (and nearly 51 minutes of a sixth), set up two goals and scored one himself in the back half of a third period that saw his Edmonton Oilers completely dominate the Canadiens.
They fired things up on the power play, they built momentum, and then McDavid did what he does. He and Draisaitl were buzzing from different lines, he ended up capitalizing on the only mistakes the Canadiens made against him all night — notching his 24th goal and his 49th and 50th assists — and the Oilers skated away with a 4-1 win.
But it didn’t have to go this way. Not with the way the Canadiens played the first 40 minutes.
Sure, it was tight-checking, playoff-style hockey, with chances scarce at both ends. But if the Canadiens had any confidence to squeak out even one more goal to add to the lead Eric Staal gave them, they wouldn’t have needed to play the third on their heels.
“You score, you’re up 2-0,” said Canadiens defenceman Jeff Petry. “It shouldn’t change your mindset, but knowing that you have two goals is huge.”
But the Canadiens, who have scored just 15 over their last nine, couldn’t find a way to build the type of lead that could free them up to play 60 minutes the way they played 50 in this one. They were good. They started energetically, with players attacking Mike Smith’s net and the defence involved in the offensive zone. They pushed until Staal broke the ice with a goal that deflected in off his skate as he rushed to the blue paint, but then they missed some golden opportunities.
Montreal’s second power play of the game, earned at 13:43 of the middle period, just under seven minutes after Staal scored, was a huge opportunity completely blown.
“Our second power play was horrible,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “We want to score for sure.”
The Canadiens had other chances.
“We had (Artturi Lehkonen) on a breakaway, we had a good deflection by (Josh) Anderson that hit the knob of the stick,” said Ducharme. “We did have some chances, but we want to create more. And obviously, at times, we were missing the net on chances. When you miss the net, you don’t give yourself a chance. There’s not one guy that takes a shot and doesn’t want to score, so it’s frustrating for them. It’s frustrating for everyone, because I think we can be scoring more.”
Tyler Toffoli, who has 21 goals in 39 games, can do it. Anderson, who has 15, is more than capable. As are Tomas Tatar, Corey Perry and Paul Byron.
Jonathan Drouin may only have two goals, and he may be much more of a playmaker than he is a goal scorer, but he’s certainly capable of more. As are Shea Weber and Petry, who have combined for 16 goals but haven’t been able to find the back of the net since the second week of March.
With Brendan Gallagher sidelined, the Canadiens are missing a player accustomed to scoring the “gritty, greasy” type Petry said they so desperately need at this time of the year, with 13 games remaining. And while they don’t have a player like McDavid or Draisaitl at their disposal, they do have a supremely talented player they can use who’s capable of providing the cushion they so desperately need in games. The one they desperately needed before the third period got underway.
Why GM Marc Bergevin would continue to sit on the opportunity to dress an elite talent like Cole Caufield — inexperienced as the Hobey Baker Award winner might be — was completely perplexing.
As we opined, after they became the first team this season to get shut out by the Ottawa Senators over the weekend, it was clear the Canadiens were in desperate need of a spark. The kind an explosive scorer like Caufield might be able to provide, and we suggested it would be worth using their last non-emergency call-up of the season to test that theory — even if it meant icing out Jake Evans until the playoffs, or until two injuries occurred at forward.
The 20-year-old who obliterated Auston Matthews’s scoring record with the United States National Development Program Team before scoring at will at the college level might have sparked the power play, which has only managed two goals over its last 33 opportunities.
If he had the breakaway chance Lehkonen had in the second period, he could’ve provided that crucial second goal.
Caufield, who was chosen 15th overall, debuted with the AHL’s Laval Rocket with two goals and an assist in his first game and another goal in his second. He scored the winner in both, and he had nine shots on net.
The Canadiens missed the net with nine of their shots against the Oilers on Monday.
Meanwhile, McDavid scored on one shot that was disallowed and then found the net with another of his four. That was after he and Draisaitl turned it up to start the third.
“They took the game over,” said Jake Allen, who took over from Carey Price in the second period after Price was unable to play beyond the first, with Ducharme later explaining the goaltender had suffered an upper-body injury in the collision with Alex Chiasson that wiped away McDavid’s first goal for goaltender interference.
“I thought we contained them very well for 40 minutes,” Allen continued, “but that’s what they do. They can make a team pay just in the blink of an eye, and it put us on our heels a little bit.”