We mused earlier this week, with the Canadiens in Tampa Bay preparing to play a game against the Lightning that most people thought should be cancelled, that Montreal was dressing a lineup that barely met pre-season eligibility of having at least eight NHL veterans dressed.
On Thursday in Carolina, the Canadiens had only seven available to them. Jonathan Drouin pulled out just before puck drop with a non-COVID-19-related illness, and a beyond short-handed Montreal team playing against the incredibly well-balanced, remarkably talented — and healthy — Hurricanes would’ve been disqualified if this game had been scheduled for September.
The Canadiens started with five players who had more than 100 games of NHL experience. They finished with one in the dressing room.
Brendan Gallagher left just over halfway through the second period. He’s Montreal’s most seasoned player and, in his absence, the Canadiens were left with a roster that accounted for less than $19 million on the cap.
To put that in proper perspective, the NHL’s cap floor for this season was set at $60.24M.
All things considered, a 4-0 loss to one of the NHL’s best teams was nothing to be ashamed of. The Canadiens, if you want to call them that, once again fought valiantly. With the season all but lost before the start of November, with 13 COVID-related absences and one non-COVID-related one, and with injuries keeping several of their best players sidelined, this team continued showing commendable resolve.
They held the Hurricanes to one shot on net through the first eight minutes of the opening period. They kept Carolina from scoring at even strength throughout the game, and they tried their best to solve Antti Raanta.
“At 5-on-5, I thought we did some good things,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme. “Unfortunately, we didn’t find a way to score on the chances we got. If you look at 5-on-5, it finished 0-0, but the difference was definitely on special teams.”
That’s where the Hurricanes got goals from Teuvo Teravainen, who scored one short-handed and one on the power play. Nino Niederreiter and Seth Jarvis also scored with the man-advantage.
The depleted Canadiens had no answer for that.
One of their veterans, Cedric Paquette, had a pretty honest take when he was asked about watching his teammates get knocked out of games as frequently as Mike Tyson opponents got knocked out of fights.
“Before the game, I was looking around the room, and it just made no sense,” Paquette said. “It’s becoming difficult to go through watching guys fall from the battle every day.
“We don’t want to complain. But we’re asking ourselves, ‘How many cases of COVID do we need to get before it stops?’”
Still, there are players getting opportunities they’d never get otherwise, and those players want to play.
Brandon Baddock dressed for his first NHL contest just one game after Rafael Harvey-Pinard and Corey Schueneman debuted and accumulated their first points in the NHL against Tampa.
“I think that you’ve got to get your opportunities somehow,” Baddock said. “There’s such good players in this league that when an opportunity comes, I was thankful for it and just trying to make the most of it.”
Other Canadiens are going with the flow and accepting that -- after the NHL lost so much revenue a season ago and is attempting desperately to rebound right now -- the league is going to keep games going so long as there are enough warm bodies available on the bench.
We asked Nick Suzuki what it’s like to come off the ice and practically have to check jersey names to see who he’s taking his next shift with.
“You just have to play the same way,” Suzuki said. “Try to find chemistry with different players. The lines were getting jumbled a lot with 11 forwards. You try to do your best. We all worked hard, and that’s all you can ask for all the guys here.”
A win seems out of the question, and that puts the integrity of the game in jeopardy.
But the Canadiens are heading to Florida for a Saturday matinee game against a loaded Panthers team that depends on the gate revenue Quebec snowbirds will surely bolster.
“We’re just doing whatever the league and our team tells us,” Suzuki said before trying to find a positive of continuing to play through this situation. “I think there’s opportunity for guys to show that they can play in the NHL and that’s always good for young guys…It’s a big opportunity for them, and they should look at it that way.”
Lukas Vejdemo seizing opportunity
One of the young(ish) players Suzuki was referring to was 25-year-old Lukas Vejdemo.
With Drouin suddenly absent, the former third-round pick in 2015 was promoted to the top line with Suzuki and Gallagher, and for a second consecutive game he showed NHL capability.
Vejdemo scored against the Lightning on Tuesday, and he had Montreal’s best chances to score against Carolina on Thursday. Through just under 14 minutes of ice-time, he registered three shots on net, and Ducharme used him more than any other forward on the penalty kill.
“He’s a good skater,” said Ducharme. “Every one of them, when you come up in those situations, you need to be using your strengths. If you want to be having an impact, you’ve got to be using your strengths and need to be keeping the game simple and using those tools. And that’s what he’s doing. He’s a good skater, he’s got pretty good hockey sense, and with those combined he’s doing pretty well.”
Alex Romanov had five hits in this one (he’s up to 111 on the season) and played 22:02 after notching a career high 26:53 against the Lightning on Tuesday. The 21-year-old is taking massive strides of late, playing much more within his capabilities and finding a way to be more efficient. When he was asked on Tuesday morning about the biggest lesson he’s learned, he said, “I think you don’t need to waste energy and work with your brain,” which was his version of “Work smart, and not just hard.” He’s a player with boundless energy, and he’s clearly figuring out how to better channel it. ... With Gianni Fairbrother and Louie Belpedio entering COVID protocol earlier on Thursday, the Canadiens are going to need a couple more players to meet them in Florida. Ducharme wasn’t sure yet who those players might be, but it’s already been ruled out that players coming out of protocol -- Artturi Lehkonen, Laurent Dauphin and Mike Hoffman -- can join them.