SAN JOSE, Calif. — The only sunshine seen in this part of California over the past 48 hours appeared to be emanating from the least likely place – the small, overcrowded dressing room the Montreal Canadiens were occupying at SAP Center.
The Canadiens were in rainy San Jose to play a game of menial significance, with a roster so depleted it was barely recognizable, with trade assets seemingly frozen while rivals across the NHL (most of them in the Eastern Conference, many within their own division) ramped up what’s been a weeks-long arms race to prepare for what’s shaping up to be an epic playoff war this spring.
You’d think they’d have been bummed just watching the madness unfold all around them as they sit in 25th place in the NHL, but optimism reigned during spirited practices Monday and Tuesday and prevailed into the wee hours of Wednesday morning, after the Canadiens pulled off a rare win over the Sharks in this building where they had lost 14 of their previous 18 games.
As head coach and chief happiness officer Martin St. Louis reminded earlier in the day, the Canadiens have just been focused on themselves, deeply immersed in their own process and pleased to be growing.
Never mind how far they must climb to be able to soon compete with the beasts of the East in Toronto, Boston, Tampa, Carolina, New York and New Jersey.
“What did I say last week? Comparison is the thief of joy,” St. Louis said. “We’re not comparing ourselves to those teams. We’re just going to continue doing what we’re doing. For sure, we want to reach a level where we can compete with those big teams, whether it’s Toronto or New Jersey or whomever, but there’s a process to get there. Does that mean we’re going to do it the same way as Toronto and New Jersey? I don’t know. But we’re going to keep advancing and building what we’re doing without looking outside of here.”
We can’t help but look outside.
While the Canadiens are progressing on the ice, their arrested development off it is impossible to ignore as the trade deadline looms.
Listening to Kaiden Guhle (who returned to action against the Sharks) muse earlier on Tuesday about how much fun he had watching his teammates play games for two months at the Bell Centre, with upwards of 10 injured regulars beside him at times in the press box, opportunities lost came sharply into focus.
Sean Monahan, who’s been out since early December, couldn’t travel with the Canadiens to California, and any hope of redeeming any type of value for him on the market between now and 3 p.m. ET on Friday evaporated when the Canadiens touched down in San Jose without him.
Joel Edmundson, who has missed a little over a month with a suspected back injury, was a full participant in practice Monday and Tuesday but wasn’t prepared to return against the Sharks. He was the Canadiens’ most likely candidate to help management procure a third first-round pick in this year’s draft, but that seems unimaginable so long as he remains sidelined.
St. Louis was singing Jonathan Drouin’s praises before Tuesday’s game marked his 45th consecutive game without a goal. “Just a great work ethic, great attitude, and his play and his touches are very, very elite,” he said of the talented forward who came into Tuesday’s action with 13 assists in his last 17 games.
“(He’s making) second, third effort on both sides of the puck,” added St. Louis. “When he’s in space, he’s got an elite brain, elite touches. He’s been fun to watch.”
But the phone isn’t ringing on Drouin, and there’s only a slim possibility it will before Friday’s deadline passes.
Even the chances of the Canadiens using their cap space to obtain assets as third-party brokers appear limited. A third such deal in recent weeks was struck when Patrick Kane went from Chicago to New York on Tuesday and the trend of Eastern Conference teams opting for Western Conference brokers continued, with the Arizona Coyotes collecting a 2025 third-round pick for retaining 25 per cent of Kane’s salary.
Not that any of this appears to be occupying the thoughts of the guys who competed extremely hard, notched 51 shot attempts, directed 32 pucks on net and came out of the Shark Tank with a 3-1 win.
“To be honest with you,” said Josh Anderson earlier in the day, “inside this room, we really haven’t talked much about it.”
“The trade deadline obviously gets a little overblown with the media, social media, and it is what it is,” said Jake Allen, after making 38 saves against the Sharks. “There’s a lot of guys on this team that aren’t going to be traded. I don’t think there’s a lot of guys who have a lot to worry about. It’s hockey; you’re here to work and do your job.
“On Friday, or sometime this week, if your name gets called, that’s the name of the business, unfortunately.”
Evgenii Dadonov was on that side of things Sunday, when he was traded to the Dallas Stars for Denis Gurianov.
The 25-year-old’s play in his first game for the Canadiens provided much optimism on Tuesday night. He had a team-high – and personal-best on the season – six shots on net to go along with three scoring chances from in tight.
Gurianov displayed the speed and shot he’s known for while also incorporating some of the determination he appeared to lack at times in his seven seasons in Texas. He may not have scored, but he started the rush and finished it right in the blue paint when Guhle blasted home the 1-1 goal 8:07 into the third period.
“I was also noticing a lot of good habits away from the puck,” said St. Louis. “I don’t see a player being one-dimensional, which is exciting for a coach. … Really good first impression, and I’m happy for him.”
Gurianov said he was happy, as well, right after he was celebrating with the rest of his new teammates in that festive, cramped room in the bowels of SAP Center after Jesse Ylonen and Christian Dvorak helped complete the third-period comeback to bury this game for the Canadiens.
“I think they’re having a lot of fun,” said St. Louis. “You guys walk in the halls, you can feel it. You hear the music playing and stuff, and I don’t know if, from the stands, you’re able to catch some glimpses of the bench, (but) guys are having fun on the bench. They’re engaged, they’re playing hard for one another, and by no means are we perfect out there. We make mistakes, guys are tapping each other on the pads and next line up is trying to pick the team up or keep doing what we’re doing. It’s a really good vibe, and that’s what you want and that’s what we’re trying to build.”