MONTREAL — It’s a three-game series against the Edmonton Oilers, a team five points up in the standings but three games ahead on its schedule, and it presents the Montreal Canadiens an opportunity to pull away from the bottom of the North Division playoff race and get back toward the top of it.
They’ll have to face it without leading scorer Tyler Toffoli, who suffered a lower-body injury in Montreal’s 3-2 overtime loss to the Vancouver Canucks last Friday.
“We thought he wouldn’t be available for overtime, but he got on the ice before it started and said he felt good to go for overtime,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “Then, in the hours that followed the game, and the next day, too, he underwent tests. He was warmed up that night but, the next day, it was worse.”
Toffoli’s injury is bad enough to prevent him from playing these games against the Oilers, who have a chance to pass the Toronto Maple Leafs for top spot in the division with a win Monday.
The Canadiens, who are 2-1 against Edmonton, are hoping to have Toffoli back for Sunday’s game against the Ottawa Senators.
If not then, perhaps shortly after.
“(Toffoli) will be evaluated after (the Edmonton series),” said Ducharme. “And we think that in the days that follow the series against Edmonton he’ll be capable of returning.”
Another key player missing from the matchup against the Oilers is Ben Chiarot. The defenceman, who had surgery to repair a fractured right hand last Monday, is expected to return in May.
Chiarot played a significant role in helping Shea Weber and the Canadiens keep Oilers leading scorers Connor McDavid (21 goals, 60 points to lead the NHL) and Leon Draisaitl (18 goals, 50 points for No. 2 in the league) to zero goals and just four points between them through their first three meetings this season.
Ducharme said the job of containing both players won’t be up to just one or two guys on his side, but his whole team.
“It’s a five-man unit all the time,” he said. “Trying to match every time (is difficult)—they play big minutes, they play a lot, and we want to be playing our base. So I’ll say that everyone on our team needs to be ready to play against them.”
If the Canadiens can handle that, it should bode well for them. Prior to a 2-1 win over the Calgary Flames on Feb. 19, the Oilers had gone 1-26-2 in games both McDavid and Draisaitl were held without a point, dating back to November of 2017.
Meanwhile, after Saturday’s 5-4 shootout win over the Canucks, the Canadiens are seeking a second consecutive win for the first time since they beat Vancouver on Feb. 1 and 2.
Going on a run right now would give the team a considerable advantage in the playoff race.
But with the series against the Canucks wrapped — Montreal went 6-0-3 against them — the challenge will be steep against the rest of the division over the final 25 games.
The Canadiens are 8-8-6 against the five other teams in Canada. These upcoming games against the Oilers, who have won seven of their last 10 and three in a row, give them their first opportunity to improve on that.
“We have to be good against everyone,” Ducharme said. “We faced them early in the season while we were on our best run, but all teams have progressed since the start of the season. Even the Canucks, who we just played, they look different than they did at the beginning of the season. So we’re expecting that every game.
"It’s going to be tight right to the end, no matter who we play. Every team has their identity, their strengths and weaknesses, so we have to make sure we’re at our best every night. That’s what’s in our control and what can give us success.”