MONTREAL — It wasn’t about what happened in the fourth period as much as it was what happened in the third, with the Montreal Canadiens trailing by a goal and the chance to finally clinch the NHL’s last playoff berth hanging in the balance.
Because it doesn’t matter all that much that the world’s best player, Connor McDavid, took advantage of a turnover at three-on-three to win the game in overtime for the Edmonton Oilers, and it matters a lot that the Canadiens found what they needed to get them far enough into the game to make McDavid’s goal less consequential. In doing so, they’ve achieved the end they’ve been working towards throughout a regular season most everyone on their team has referred to as the biggest grind of their careers.
Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme called it a relief.
“Yeah it is. You know, what we’ve been through is something really special,” he said. “We’re going to be playing our 25th game in (44 days on Wednesday) — it’s never been done before. I know it looks easy, and you say, ‘Night after night, they’re going to come back and they’re just playing hockey, it’s not that complicated,’ but to win in that league, the margins between winning and losing is so thin that you need to be mentally challenging yourself to be on top every night. And that’s something special.
“Guys showed a lot. I know it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t great to see every night, but guys never gave up. The challenges we had in losing guys — we could’ve been in big trouble, and we stuck with it and at times got some big wins… I think we deserve to be where we’re at and going into the playoffs and having a chance to compete for the Cup.”
There was something symbolic in how the Canadiens achieved it, in a game they may have lost 4-3 but one they showed a lot of character in. There was something fitting about their depth — their most vaunted quality from December to now — shining through when it mattered most.
The Canadiens would have been beaten soundly in if not for the three players who started the season’s first game as the fourth line. On this night, in the absence of two-thirds of the top line, Jake Evans, Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron went up against McDavid, Dominik Kahun and Jesse Puljujarvi and completely dominated them.
We can’t think of three players on the Canadiens who have battled more adversity this season than Evans, Lehkonen and Byron, but they have overcome it and proven something in the process.
Byron, making $3.4 million and struggling to provide the secondary offence out of the gate to justify it, was a cap casualty on three occasions; an assistant captain waived to clear space. He never complained, never missed a minute of his own volition after taking a Shea Weber slap shot to the foot earlier in the season and he returned from a nine-game absence due to a lower-body injury to post a goal, an assist, four shot attempts and four hits in 14:58 of Monday’s game.
“He’s a big part of this team,” said Lehkonen. “He’s a great hockey player. He uses his speed really well, he battles hard all the time, he’s always going 100 per cent. It makes him a really easy player to play with.”
The 25-year-old Finn with a track record of raising his game for the big ones may as well have been talking about himself.
Lehkonen was nearly traded to free up cap space prior to the trade deadline. He was scratched from eight games this season, made to feel like his role was in jeopardy, and yet there he was on Monday scoring the game-tying goal less than 10 minutes after having one taken away from him due to a coach’s challenge for offside. He also assisted on the first two goals his team scored.
The acquisition of Eric Staal at the deadline pushed Evans to the margins despite his strong play, and the cap situation kept him out of the lineup for six games in April.
But the 24-year-old rookie cemented his place at the heart of it with a career-high three points against Edmonton.
“If you look, we took the decision that it would be Jake, Lehky and Paul playing McDavid,” said Ducharme. “So, it already shows what we see in him and in them.”
We see speed and tenacity in three players who play the right way and help teams get to and through the playoffs. We see three players who, with their play on Monday, epitomized the 2021 Canadiens — not necessarily in how effective they were, but more so in their will to not be defeated by the circumstances.
“We just knew we just had to keep pushing as a team,” said Byron. “Keep pushing, and keep pushing, and keep pushing…”
The big shove comes next — first on Wednesday, with the Canadiens potentially still having an opportunity to pass the Jets for third place in the North Division, and then, more importantly, into the post-season for the first time (on their own merit) in four years.
There will be things to sort out and time to do it. Injured players Phillip Danault, Brendan Gallagher, Shea Weber and Carey Price are expected to return prior to next Wednesday — it’s subject to change, but that’s the expected start date for the Canadian teams participating in the playoffs — and that means some hard decisions coming both at forward and on defence.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi is in a competition with Staal. If handing the McDavid assignment to Evans was telling, so was short-shifting Kotkaniemi and playing him 5:01 less than Staal.
Staal had a strong night, with the exception of one shift where Kahun ended up scoring off a McDavid feed to make it 3-2 Oilers in the second period, but he’s struggled just as much as Kotkaniemi has over the last 20-odd games.
Jon Merrill and Alexander Romanov, who played (miserably) as a defence pair and cost the Canadiens two goals in the first period, are battling with each other as well. We’d give the edge to the Russian rookie, but we can’t outright claim he’s won the role just yet.
Has Cole Caufield done enough to carve out a role for himself? Could a big performance on Wednesday earn him one?
We’ll see how it all shakes out.
If Ducharme has as much time to evaluate it all, it’s because the Canadiens played Monday’s third period like their season depended on it. And what happened in overtime afterwards was of little consequence.