MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens were undone before four minutes of their fourth game of the season were played — and by a player who entered the fray with one game of NHL experience and zero goals to his name.
They had no answer for San Jose’s Jonathan Dahlen, who was chosen 42nd overall by the Ottawa Senators in 2016. The 23-year-old’s markers, 1:22 and 3:36 into Tuesday’s game, piled up that snowball and sent it careening further downhill at warp speed. Nothing the Canadiens did thereafter in this 5-0 loss slowed its momentum.
Four games played, four dropped. One less goal between all of them on the season than Dahlen has in his career.
You know it was a terrible night for the Canadiens when the biggest positive they could take home was solace in not being booed by a full-capacity crowd. This might be one of the few times since 1996 the team should be thankful the Bell Centre was short 5,010 fans.
It might be one of the few times since the building opened that year that as few fans were in attendance for a game of consequence, which is something we’d mostly attribute to the Canadiens gaining authorization to operate at full capacity just under three weeks ago and luxury expenditures down significantly in a pandemic-stricken economy.
Sadly, vaccine and mask mandates could certainly be a factor as well.
But the big concern in the Canadiens’ front office should be the trend worsens with the quality of the product on the ice not improving dramatically and expeditiously.
The guys on the ice know it needs to happen — right now.
“I think we need get back to basics,” said Jeff Petry. “I think we need to put in the effort and make sure that we’re supporting each other. There’s so many times where we’re skating away from the puck, we’re leaving guys out to dry, we’re not playing as a unit of five, and we’re going to go nowhere playing like that.
“We need everybody to have a better effort and to play a simple game, play a hard game. Right now, we haven’t, and we’re on the outside, we’re not supporting each other. There’s a lot of things we need to improve on, and I think we just (need to) simplify our game and not play a cute game because we’re not scoring goals and we’re giving up way too many chances.”
What had the 33-year-old fuming was that, for the second time in four games, the effort was nowhere close to what it needed to be.
Not that the Canadiens entered this one with bad intentions. Down 3-0 to start, you know they wanted to play well and win.
But they froze and, in Petry’s words, “made it easy” on the Sharks.
Through two periods, the guys in bleu, blanc et rouge hadn’t produced a single shot from closer than 20 feet to Adin Hill’s net. They had won just eight of 28 faceoffs — and far fewer battles for the puck — and they were only moderately better in the third.
“The game is honest, and it was honest with us tonight,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme.
The game honestly slapped his Canadiens right in the face, which might not be a bad thing considering what’s on the line moving forward — teams that get this far off course out of the gate rarely bounce back sufficiently to make the playoffs and this one can’t afford to give up any more ground.
Ducharme said that, from down 2-0 early, his team’s disconnectedness was a function of chasing the game. He said they were hoping something good would happen instead of playing in a way that would enable something good to happen and there’s a good lesson to take from that going into Thursday’s showdown with the Carolina Hurricanes at 0-4 with 78 games to go.
Brendan Gallagher, who’s been with the Canadiens for nine seasons, has been through this before and knows what needs to be applied.
“You can probably, to a man in our locker room, do more,” he said.
“How you handle these (problems) are kind of what defines your character,” he continued. “We’re going through a tough time right now—you want to be a team that you can count on your character in that locker room. Well, now’s the time, but it’s not going to be easy. A lot of people are going to turn on us and it’s going to be important in that locker room that we don’t. You work to find solutions, it’s never easy to get out of these things. It’s very disappointing that it’s happening at the very beginning of the year, but this is when you’re challenged. So, you want to test yourself? Test yourself in the toughest situations, and that’s what we’ve got right now.”
At least Dahlen and the 2-0 Sharks are headed to Ottawa, leaving one less problem for the Canadiens to solve.