It’s not so much that the Canadiens lost a game; these things are inevitable over the course of a season.
Rather, it’s more concerning how passive and lethargic this team was, considering what was at stake. And should the trend continue, the Canadiens might just play themselves out of a playoff spot in the North Division.
“We’re not looking for any excuse,” defenceman Brett Kulak said following Montreal’s 4-1 loss to the Calgary Flames Wednesday night at the Bell Centre. “We know it was in our favour to come in and have the jump on them.
“It’s that time of year,” added Kulak, the only Canadien who scored — that aspect alone should be considered alarming. “Every game’s going to be tight. Just small, little things make the difference between winning and losing. We know that. As much as it feels good to be angry about the loss, how we played and mistakes we made, we have to move on.”
While the Canadiens remain in control of the fourth and final playoff berth, it doesn’t seem making the post-season will be quite the walk in the park many had envisioned. And if it appeared Montreal’s problems were behind it following Monday’s win over Toronto, all that was accomplished was to temporarily stop the bleeding.
The Canadiens (18-13-9) still lead the Flames (19-21-3) by four points and hold three games in hand. But that statistic will prove moot unless Montreal starts winning more regularly.
The Canadiens have lost four of their last five — all with Jake Allen in net for the injured Carey Price — while being held to nine goals, four of which were produced in the victory against the Leafs.
Montreal was playing a Calgary team that beat Toronto on the road the night before. Yet it was the Canadiens who looked like they were skating in quicksand.
“We knew what we were facing,” interim head coach Dominique Ducharme said. “I thought we didn’t execute. We didn’t react the right way. We spent way too much time in our zone. We weren’t strong enough on puck battles. Our execution on small plays wasn’t good enough. It’s pretty simple.”
And Ducharme was just getting started.
“We didn’t kill plays quick,” he added. “We didn’t win those 50-50 pucks. A lot of time was spent battling and not winning the puck. Same on faceoffs. We were running after the puck all (first) period. Not starting with the puck and not winning battles.”
Overall, Calgary won 60 per cent of the faceoffs, its dominance on display from the start. The Flames’ first goal resulted directly from Mikael Backlund beating Nick Suzuki on the draw in the Canadiens’ zone. Montreal won only five of 23 defensive zone faceoffs, none of the team’s centres producing a winning percentage.
Phillip Danault was the best of the lot, winning 48 per cent of his faceoffs. Eric Staal was at 45 per cent; Suzuki at 40 per cent and Jesperi Kotkaniemi at 30 per cent. Both Suzuki and Tyler Toffoli had plus/minus ratings of minus-3.
While Montreal and Calgary meet four more times over the next 12 days — including Friday night at the Bell Centre — the Flames have now beaten the Canadiens like a rented mule, taking four of the five that have been played. Montreal has been held to three goals in those four defeats.
That should be alarming for the Canadiens, along with their apparent lack of a killer instinct when in a position to put a dagger into Calgary.
“Maybe two or three teams in the league manage to be consistent at a high level,” Kulak said. “Even then, at some point, there’s always some lulls. There are no bad teams in the league. Every night’s a battle and there are no easy games.
“Sometimes you get on a roll and you’re feeling good. Sometimes … you don’t have that same energy going in and it can be a bit more of a grind. Those are the things you have to work through.”
While the Flames have now won three straight, drawing close enough to get the Canadiens’ attention, this is a team that had lost eight of nine before going on this run. We’re not talking about a juggernaut here, in other words.
“Our game wasn’t good enough tonight,” Suzuki understated. “We really need to be desperate if we want to be in that playoff run.
“There are points in the game when we’re playing really well. Then, all of a sudden, something will change. We have to figure that out moving forward.”
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