MONTREAL — If this was supposed to be a sobering loss for the Montreal Canadiens — their first in regulation in the eight games they’ve played this season — it sure didn’t feel like one.
Not that the Calgary Flames don’t deserve credit for a 2-0 win at the Bell Centre. Coming off three consecutive losses, including one Thursday to Montreal that prompted a players-only meeting to address what several Flames termed “a lack of emotion,” they came out with a good first period, rode a 1-0 lead to the final minute of the third and were emotionally engaged enough to throw 23 hits and block 22 Montreal shots.
But if it wasn’t for Jacob Markstrom, this would’ve been a lopsided win for the Canadiens — with 28 shots to Calgary’s 18 over the final 40 minutes and with 14 high-danger attempts to Calgary’s three over the same stretch.
“When your goalie plays like that, you’re not going to lose. Ever,” said Flames captain Mark Giordano.
One hundred and ninety feet away from Markstrom’s crease, Canadiens backup Jake Allen was full value, beaten only by a perfect, power-play shot from Johnny Gaudreau in the fourth minute of the first period, coming up with 31 saves of his own.
The Canadiens defence did a commendable job clearing the crease and the few rebound opportunities Allen gave up, and their offence piled up snow in Calgary’s end despite Josh Anderson leaving after the first period with flu-like symptoms — he was given a COVID-19 test that came back negative — and Jesperi Kotkaniemi missing a portion of the second to be assessed for a concussion (he was cleared and returned for the third).
It was in the 13th minute of the middle frame that Dube lined up Kotkaniemi for a hit. Kotknaiemi, who later said he “really didn’t see that,” turned and took significant head contact on the play and then got up and returned to the Montreal bench bleeding from his nose. No penalty was assessed to Dube, and Canadiens captain Shea Weber was given a penalty for roughing Dube in response.
“It looked like a hit right to the head,” said Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot, who was just a few feet away from Kotkaniemi when he was hit. “I’m not really sure what (the officials) were saying, but from my angle, it was right in the head.”
Sources confirmed to Sportsnet the NHL’s department of player safety will review the incident.
The DOPS will have to decide whether or not the main point of contact was Kotkaniemi’s head, and if they deem that it is, they will then have to rule on whether or not that head contact was avoidable.
When Kotkaniemi was asked if he’d like to see Dube suspended, he responded, “I don’t really care. Things just happen in the game and they will make the call. It’s not my call.”
Canadiens coach Claude Julien declined to comment on the incident, other than to say “it’s pretty obvious to everyone what happened,” and forward Brendan Gallagher thought Dube’s elbow might have come up on the play.
“I liked the response from (Weber), we’ll kill that off every single time,” Gallagher added. “I think that’s what our team’s going to do this year.”
Through the first seven games, the Canadiens showed they can carry play at both ends of the ice, and they did exactly that through most of Game 8, as well, with a 75-47 edge in shot attempts and a 20-5 lead in high-danger attempts.
“It was a strong, competitive game,” said Gallagher. “I thought the first 10 minutes they kind of controlled the play, but I thought after that I liked our energy, I liked our game. We’ve just got to find a way. We got tons of chances in front of the net. We’ve gotta find a way to outwork their goaltender. He made some good saves, but I think we all had some chances we would like back.”
Gallagher had one from the lip of Markstrom’s crease with just 2:28 remaining in the third period — a backhand he pushed into Markstrom’s pads just moments after linemate Tomas Tatar missed a wide-open net from the middle of the slot.
Centre Michael Backlund didn’t miss his chance at an empty net with 33 seconds left, giving the Flames a 2-0 win.
They were the first team to keep the Canadiens off the board since the start of the season, but it’s not as if they left them doubting themselves.
The Canadiens had previously scored at least three goals in each of their games, with all but two forwards and one defenceman failing to find the back of the net. They came into Saturday’s contest in the NHL’s biggest echo chamber — the Bell Centre typically holds over 21,000 fans but has none in attendance due to COVID protocols — leading the league in goals per game, with a power play that had scored on 32 per cent of its chances and a penalty kill that had scored an NHL-high five goals. It wasn’t for lack of effort, or because they were outplayed, that they weren’t able to improve on those numbers.
“Things just didn’t go our way,” said Kotkaniemi.
They can’t always, even if they mostly had through a 5-0-2 start.