Few if any were surprised the Montreal Canadiens lost 5-1 to the expansion Seattle Kraken in their first-ever meeting this 2021-22 regular season. Granted, there had been hope the Habs had turned a corner and left their early-season struggles behind them following a 6-1 victory over the Detroit Red Wings to bring their record to 1-5.
Now 1-6 on the season following the Kraken game, the biggest win Seattle has earned so far (with Brandon Tanev of all players scoring two goals), the Canadiens have no choice but to go back to the drawing board. It may help (or not) to look back, realizing the Habs have a history of failing to dominate ripe-for-the-beating expansion opponents in their first games against them.
Granted, such a suggestion throws the notion that it was a one-off out the window, but at the very least the Canadiens won’t have to worry about it until the next time they play a brand-new team. There must be some comfort in that, no?
Going back to the start of this latest expansion era, i.e., the debut of the San Jose Sharks in 1991-92, the Canadiens have faced 11 different expansion teams. Overall, against those teams all-time, the Canadiens are 292-234-28-51, according to Hockey Reference.
The resulting .548 points percentage (based on current rules, which award a point for each of the 51 overtime losses) seems decent on paper, and it is very much in line with the 5-4-2 record the Habs have in those first games against each expansion team. However, it ultimately amounts to a slew of failed opportunities, with the Canadiens capturing just 12 of 22 possible points against less-than-stellar opposition.
So, where did it all go wrong? You be the judge:
San Jose Sharks – Jan. 4, 1992 (W: 1-0 OT)
Canadiens fans have come to fear Western road trips. Whether it’s justifiable or not, they started things off against the Sharks fairly well, with a 1-0 overtime victory. Guy Carbonneau scored the game’s only goal on eventual-Canadiens goalie Jeff Hackett. However, all good things must come to an end, with the Canadiens now 15-21-4-2 against the Sharks overall.
Ottawa Senators – Oct. 8, 1992 (L: 3-5)
Of all the teams on this list, the Canadiens historically play the most meaningful games against the Ottawa Senators, due to their geographic proximity, obviously. And, the same held true their first meeting in October 1992. In fact, it was the first game in Senators’ history… not to mention their first win.
Senators forward Neil Brady scored the game-opening goal, while Doug Smail added two, including an insurance marker late. Sylvain Turgeon, who the Senators picked from the Habs in the 1992 NHL Expansion Draft, coincidentally notched the game-winning goal.
What’s truly notable though is the Senators won 10 whole games that season. They were bad, like 24-points, last-in-the-standings bad. Somehow, the Canadiens survived the embarrassment though, with a fairly decent 1992-93 season, all things considered.
Tampa Bay Lightning – Oct. 28, 1992 (W: 4-3)
Even the Senators’ expansion siblings that season, the Tampa Bay Lightning, managed to more than double them up in the standings with 53 points. Still, the Canadiens redeemed themselves to a certain extent for their initial failure to beat the Sens, holding on for a 4-3 victory over the Lightning, after jumping out to a 4-1 lead on the strength of two Brian Bellows goals.
Mighty Ducks of Anaheim – Oct. 23, 1993 (W: 4-1)
Before they were just the Ducks, they were of course the Mighty Ducks, and it was reflected somewhat in the standings their inaugural season as they finished just outside the playoffs in ninth place in the Western Conference, albeit 11 points behind the eighth-place sharks. Still, the Canadiens beat them quasi-convincingly 4-1, with Stephan Lebeau scoring two goals and both Vincent Damphousse and Brian Bellows contributing three points.
Florida Panthers – Nov. 10, 1993 (L: 1-3)
Coincidentally, the Florida Panthers, who debuted that same 1993-94 season, almost made the playoffs themselves. In fact, they were much closer than the Mighty Ducks, missing out by a single point with a respectable 33-34-17 season and 83 points (New York Islanders).
Literally two seasons from a magical Stanley Cup Final run, the Panthers gave the Habs more than they could chew their first meeting, Despite outshooting the Panthers by almost a 2:1 margin (38-20), the Canadiens only got one past goalie John Vanbiesbrouck care of Bellows. Ex-Canadiens forward Jesse Belanger, who had been claimed in the expansion draft, became the second ex-Hab to score a game-winning goal on this list, en route to a career-best 50-point season.
Nashville Predators – Dec. 12, 1998 (T: 2-2)
Hackett makes his second appearance on this list, but with the Habs this time, serving as the difference-maker against the Predators’ here. Whereas Tomas Vokoun, the Preds’ selection from the Canadiens made 22 saves, Hackett stopped 41 shots in a 2-2 draw. Benoit Brunet and Jonas Hoglund scored for the Habs. Andrew Brunette and Scott Walker countered for the Predators, who stumbled out of the starting gates as a franchise with a 28-47-7 record.
In theory the Canadiens probably should have fared better. Keep in mind, 1998-99 was the first of three straight seasons the Canadiens missed the playoffs at around the turn of the century, coinciding with the end of the Rejean Houle era. So, the tie sounds about right.
Atlanta Thrashers – Nov. 13, 1999 (W: 4-2)
In retrospect, the Canadiens’ mastery over the Winnipeg Jets during the 2021 Stanley Cup Playoffs should have been somewhat expected. They own a 44-19-2-9 record over the franchise, since it came into existence as the Atlanta Thrashers during the 1999-2000 season. With exception to the Vegas Golden Knights, where there’s a much smaller sample size, that’s the most dominant record the Habs have enjoyed against anyone on this list.
The Thrashers ended their inaugural season with the league’s worst record at 14-57-7, but did manage to outshoot the Canadiens 23-21 in this one. The Habs nevertheless came out on top, winning 4-2, with Scott Thornton getting the game-winning goal. Trevor Linden, Martin Rucinsky and Eric Weinrich each had two assists.
Minnesota Wild – Oct. 24, 2000 (T: 2-2)
The Wild are one of two teams on this list against whom the Habs have a losing record all-time (9-14-1-1; Sharks). Even so, the Wild had a poor first season, finishing second from last in the Western Conference with 68 points. So, you probably would have hoped for a better result here other than the 2-2- tie, as a Habs fan. Considering they finished just two points higher in the standings, it may not have been realistic, unfortunately.
The Canadiens got goals from Danius Zubrus and Weinrich. Wes Walz and Antti Laaksonen scored for the Wild, who got outshot 35-23. Jamie McLennan, the Wild’s first expansion-draft pick (via the St. Louis Blues) was in net, providing decent value, at least for the one game.
Columbus Blue Jackets – Dec. 18, 2000 (L: 0-2)
Further evidencing the Canadiens’ disappointing 2000-01 campaign, they got shut out by the Columbus Blue Jackets 2-0 in their first meeting. It was also the first-ever shutout in the Jackets’ favor, for what it’s worth, with ex-Hab Ron Tugnutt stopping all 27 shots he faced to etch his name in the record books. Chris Nielsen and Kevyn Adams scored the two goals.
Vegas Golden Knights – Nov. 7, 2017 (W: 3-2)
Fast-forward nearly two decades to the start of the league’s latest expansion phase. Everyone knows how the Vegas Golden Knights became the most successful expansion team in NHL history. In fact, after reaching the Stanley Cup Final that 2017-18 season, they never really slowed down. Granted, they haven’t been back to the championship round, but they also have proven themselves to be far from a fluke, building off their first-year success thanks to shrewd management decisions, like the Max Pacioretty trade with the Canadiens.
Of course, the Canadiens came out winners in that deal, acquiring both Nick Suzuki and Tomas Tatar, but the Golden Knights did all right, getting a top-line winger who rediscovered his game in the new uniform. Pacioretty actually scored in the Habs’ first against the Golden Knights, in what ended up a 3-2 Habs victory.
That’s not necessarily unusual, as Pacioretty scoring for the Habs became commonplace over his tenure with the team. That season though, his production dried up. He notched just 17 along with 20 assists in 64 games, which was far off the 30-40 markers to which fans had grown accustomed. However, the Habs struggled that season as a whole, finishing well out of the playoff race with a 29-40-13 record. It’s why the above-mentioned victory is fairly surprising, along with the Habs’ 5-1 all-time record against the Knights.
Obviously, the Canadiens’ fortunes have changed since, which can at least partially explain their success over an otherwise-elite team. There’s the theory that they either play up or down the competition, but, at 1-6 in the standings now, just about everyone’s above them. The Kraken loss may have just been one game, but games add up and opportunities to move up in the standings are fleeting… even non-existent come a certain point. Getting outhustled by an expansion team is one thing, but getting blown out is a different animal altogether… even if it’s somewhat to be expected by the Habs in this context at this point.
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 writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to cover the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.