MONTREAL — For just the second time in their history, the Montreal Canadiens have started their season without a point through five games.
They’re on the verge of breaking a record that certainly won’t go up next to the various plaques in their dressing room by becoming the first team in NHL history to follow an appearance in the Stanley Cup Final with a six-game losing streak to start the season.
How have the Canadiens found themselves on this precipice?
Much of the damage was self-inflicted through the first four losses, and everything else went against them.
Everything that was left to go followed in this fifth one — a 4-1 win for the Carolina Hurricanes, who were all smiles after extending their own record to 3-0.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi’s smile was quite wide as he entered the press room to talk about scoring his first goal of the season against the team that drafted him third overall in 2018. He was booed mercilessly in his first return to the Bell Centre since signing a $6.1-million offer sheet to play in Carolina, but he fought through it and parked himself in front of the Canadiens net to tip the puck in and put the game out of reach at 9:23 of the third period.
“I think it was a little funny,” the Finn said about the attention he received. “I think I laughed a little bit when I stepped on the ice.”
He unquestionably laughed plenty as he stepped off of it.
Sebastian Aho, who signed a five-year, $42.27-million offer sheet with the Canadiens that the Hurricanes ended up matching in 2019, scored two goals and bristled at the suggestion afterwards that he also burned his old team on this night.
Still, he smiled and said, “Yeah, I felt good.”
Andrei Svechnikov, who scored the winning goal with a simple fake and a shot into the roof of Jake Allen’s net 2:12 into the second period, said of the Canadiens, “Those guys played hard.”
He was right.
The Canadiens may have embarrassed themselves in a lacklustre 5-0 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday, but they bounced back with a strong effort and probably deserved better against the Hurricanes on Thursday.
They made far fewer mistakes but seemingly got burned on all of them. They generated several scoring chances — a goal from Brendan Gallagher on the power play got called back on a challenge for goaltender interference and it easily could’ve counted; breakaways for Josh Anderson and Jonathan Drouin that ended with Frederik Andersen making incredible saves; a Christian Dvorak shot that appeared destined for the back of the net ended up striking the post; several goal-mouth scrambles that ended with the puck just staying out instead of crossing the line.
The Canadiens got unlucky, and they had nothing to smile about after the game.
“At the end of the day a loss is a loss,” said Tyler Toffoli, who scored his first of the season and busted a 0-for-17 streak for his team on the power play. “Trying really hard and almost doing it doesn’t really cut it.”
Getting caught somewhere in between trying hard and trying too hard is a big part of how the Canadiens ended up on the losing end once again.
“I’d rather have a little bit too much urgency and work with those things and manage them properly than having to push for urgency,” said coach Dominique Ducharme about his team’s performance, and we’d agree with him on that.
But frustration is mounting for him and all of the Canadiens, and the wrong side of history is beckoning.
It’s against the Detroit Red Wings on Saturday that the Canadiens will try to avoid their worst start to a season ever and also try to avoid becoming the first Stanley Cup finalist to go 0-6 just months later. They’ll have to find some positives to latch onto, like these ones Nick Suzuki offered after Thursday’s demoralizing loss:
“I thought five-on-five we did a better job of creating scoring chances,” he said. “Power play—finally got one… I thought the scoring chances were there, we did a better job of getting to the net… I think there’s stretches where we looked like the better team…”
If the Canadiens find a way to be that for longer ones, they’ll be the ones smiling in the end.