It doesn’t get any easier for the Montreal Canadiens. That’s more so educated speculation than commentary on what was an impressive 4-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers in the Habs’ first game back following an unanticipated layoff due to the NHL’s COVID-19 protocol.
24 Canadiens Games in 42 Days
With the Canadiens having played their last game on March 20, a 5-4 shootout victory over the Vancouver Canucks, they “enjoyed” nine full days off before beating the Oilers on March 30. Taking into account the fact they already had a bye week, the Habs are now under the gun of a condensed schedule, during which they have 24 games left in just 42 days.
You don’t need to be a calculus major to realize that’s a lot of resulting back-to-backs, six to be exact. In effect the Canadiens went from having arguably the easiest remaining schedule in the North Division down the stretch to the absolute toughest.
Compare that to the 19 games in 39 days left the Vancouver Canucks have (two back-to-backs). Even though the Oilers themselves have four sets of back-to-back games left, they also have only 19 games left to play, but 41 games in which to do so.
Of course, it’s worth pointing out the Canadiens’ chances of making the playoffs actually went up over the course of the last week and a half they were away from the ice. The two teams directly behind them in the standings, chasing them for the fourth and final playoff spot are the Canucks, who lost both of their games in that span, and the Calgary Flames, who lost four of five, including two to the last-place Ottawa Senators.
Needless to say, the Canadiens could definitely be in a worse position as a result. It’s nevertheless worth noting the last time the Habs played three games in four days, they put together a listless performance against the Flames, losing 2-1. They followed it up with a more embarrassing 3-1 defeat to the Flames two days later.
Byron and Lehkonen Rise to Challenge
Considering five of the six back-to-backs the Canadiens have left also coincide with similar sets of three games in four nights, they’re going to have to take drastic measures to ensure history doesn’t repeat itself. That means more reliance on players who haven’t played regularly. Interim head coach Dominique Ducharme confirmed as much during a recent media-availability session, saying, “With the schedule we’re facing, we’re going to need everyone… It’s going to be important having everyone ready to go and everyone involved [tonight].”
True to his word, Ducharme gave the likes of Paul Byron (15:45) and Artturi Lehkonen (15:59) the most ice time they’ve had all season against the Oilers. Furthermore, as if responding to the call to arms, Lehkonen, who has been the subject of cap-space-clearing trade rumors, and Byron, who has gone through waivers several times, each tallied two points apiece in the opening minutes.
With Victor Mete playing in only his ninth game this season and Michael Frolik making his first-ever on-ice appearance in a Canadiens uniform, this is likely the start of a new trend. Even if only because the Habs have no other option but to finally play their role players more. As recently as the Habs’ last game before their hiatus, the discrepancy between the most played forward up front and the least was 11:41 (12:02 on defense). Against the Oilers, it was 7:10 (6:29).
Granted, Tyler Toffoli remains out of the lineup with a lower-body injury, and Joel Armia and Eric Staal are still on the NHL’s COVID protocol list. So, to a certain extent, the Canadiens had no but to give their lesser-played guys a shot, but that lack of choice should extend throughout the rest of the season in order for them to remain as fresh as possible. Considering how well the team fared against the Oilers, it might not be the worst idea.
Canadiens vs. Oilers
In the interest of full disclosure, the Oilers had been playing their second game in two nights themselves, having beaten the Leafs 3-2 in overtime the night before. So, they were not at their best, with Connor McDavid failing to record a shot on goal (if you exclude the goal he had called back) for the second time all season.
If anything, that fact just reinforces the need for the Habs to take the condensed nature of their schedule seriously and stick with the plan going forward. If they don’t, looking back at the positives from their first game back against the Oilers can shift to looking in a mirror really quickly, considering the Oilers, one of the league’s most potent offenses, were shut out and managed just 17 shots on net.
In effect, the Oilers game was both a feel-good story and cautionary tale all in one. It’s up to the Canadiens to choose their own adventure and ensure their regular season ends up happily ever after… and into the playoffs.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.