At this point, the Montreal Canadiens have heard about “consistency” so much in their questions from the media that the word must be losing all meaning. It shows on the ice too.
Case in point, 48 hours after the Habs dispatched the Edmonton Oilers in a fairly impressive and just-as crucial 4-3 victory (in which they led 4-1 with five minutes remaining), they lost 4-2 to the Calgary Flames, putting up a meager 20 shots on goal. The fact that it was against the team directly below them in the standings, making the game arguably even more crucial, didn’t seem to phase the Habs in their lack of execution yet again, in what is becoming a Jekyll-and-Hyde transformation, effectively from game to game.
After all, the Habs preceded their 4-3 victory over the Oilers with another listless performance in a 4-1 loss to them two nights beforehand. Maybe that means Habs fans can expect a better effort against the Flames Saturday night, in their second of three straight meetings between the two teams in four days, but truth be told even the Canadiens themselves don’t seem to know what to expect on a nightly basis.
A Canadiens Tale: Habs Go West
Some may argue it would be a reasonable assumption for the Habs to put their best foot forward for the second game of this all-important three-game mini-series, in which they face the Flames for the final times. Now that they’ve had a chance to acclimate themselves to their opponents, they should fare much better.
However, that argument would conveniently ignore how the Canadiens have been facing the same six teams all season long. They should know what each team brings to the table by now like their regular server at their favorite restaurant after having made their usual order. Nevertheless, the mediocre 20-23-3 Flames, against whom the Habs are a worse 2-5, seemingly took them by surprise again, no one more so than interim head coach Dominique Ducharme.
Ahead of the game, asked about his team’s inability to show up against the Flames, Ducharme was blunt in his response.
“I don’t think the Flames have seen our team play like we can play. So, that’s what we’re going to bring tonight,” he had said.
If Ducharme had known the effort level the Canadiens would actually bring, he might have tempered expectations. Instead he was left holding the bag, much like that one criminal who couldn’t get away in time after a heist gone wrong. However, instead of red-faced, either embarrassed or angry, Ducharme was impressively able to say completely deadpan after the game: “They had a little bit more jump than us… Coming out of the corners, beating our guys back to the net, those are little things that you pile them up and you can pay the price for those things and we did.”
Unfortunately, just like the metaphorical money in that bag, Ducharme’s word is about as effective as currency these days as those of the Boy Who Cried Wolf. Few outsiders are really buying what he’s selling at this juncture. In fact, whether Ducharme remembers it or not, the Flames had seen the best of the Canadiens, in their first meeting of the season, when the Canadiens won 4-2 in their first home game of the season. Despite two late goals against, it was as complete of a performance as you might ever find on the part of the Canadiens this season.
Canadiens Sputter Down the Stretch
Of course, this was at the tail end of the Canadiens’ dominant January to remember. A few days later, the Canadiens would follow up that early-season performance with arguably their first truly disappointing loss of the season, a 2-0 shutout to those same Flames, leading into their February to forget.
In effect, that shutout loss to the Flames, their first in regulation, signaled the beginning of the end for the Canadiens. Following their 5-0-2 start to the season, nothing has gone consistently right for them, including the coaching change from Claude Julien to Ducharme. Under Julien, the Canadiens were 9-5-4. Under Ducharme, they’re 11-11-5. Similar to with the latter’s players, little he says these days holds any weight.
Yes, the Canadiens as a whole have been fairly up front about their inadequacies after every loss, taking accountability for their lack of in-game action. Still, it doesn’t really mean anything if they follow up every subsequent victory with another failure to show up altogether.
In the Canadiens’ defense, it would be hard for anyone to put together a complete 60 minutes day in, day out under the circumstances in which they now find themselves as a result of their impromptu hiatus due to NHL COVID-19 protocol. When the Canadiens first returned after nine full days away from action, they impressively shut out he Oilers 4-0 in a complete performance, but they also faced a condensed scheduled of 25 games in 44 days.
Short of blood doping between periods, there is no realistic way to sustain that level of play over the course of the remainder of the schedule. It’s not going to happen. Really, what fans are witnessing now is the inevitable outcome that was always going to take place, regardless of whether or not the Habs had been able to stay as dominant as they were to start the season. Once COVID-19 for all intents and purposes hit their locker room, they were always going to stagger to the finish line.
Canadiens’ Fate Still in Their Hands
However, there’s a flip side. Consider how the Canadiens started off their post-protocol schedule with a 3-1 record. Those were each single games (no back-to-back sets). They then opened up the truly hectic part of their schedule with a 3-2 loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs, before losing to the Winnipeg Jets 4-2, 24 hours later. They followed that up with one of their least convincing performances of the season, a 5-0 loss to those same Jets 48 hours later. Seeing as the Canadiens only lasted a single week before the rigors of their new reality set in, it’s not an excuse. And the Canadiens haven’t made it one.
All the same, the Canadiens’ ability to perform up to their potential should be a source of both frustration and hope for fans. Hope, because the Habs are a strong team on paper that can realistically reach Round 2 at the very least and build on last postseason’s unexpected relative success. Frustration, because they obviously first have to make the playoffs.
As the fourth-place team in the North Division, the Canadiens still hold their fate in their hands to a degree. However, at the start, this three-game series against the Flames comprised arguably the three-most important games remaining on the schedule. The Canadiens had the chance to all but mathematically eliminate the Flames from playoff contention with a sweep. Now, the best the Canadiens can hope for is a modest gain in the standings, which is disappointing enough without failing to take into account their lack of compete on Friday night.
Defenseman Joel Edmundson went a step further. Acknowledging the loss to the Flames was a big game, he said the Habs have approached this five-game road trip as a best-of-five.
“[The Edmonton Oilers and the Flames] are up 2-1 right now, but we’ve got two more games in the next three nights. We’ve got to win those,” he said.
Now, the Canadiens may very well make the playoffs, even if they lose the makeshift series. What would be the point, though? All the Canadiens will have proven in so doing is that they wouldn’t deserve to, as, with their backs against the wall in a must-win situation, they have failed to deliver up to now. Even if they have the propensity to win on paper, that’s not “good enough.” Ultimately at this stage neither is a vocabulary that so much as features the phrase.
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.