OTTAWA – Every game is going to be a battle heading down the stretch. The Canadiens learned that firsthand in the nation’s capital.
Whether facing teams fighting for postseason positioning or facing teams whose players are fighting for jobs in 2015-16, no easy games remain among the 25 left on the Canadiens’ 2014-15 schedule.
Proof of that was a Senators team which, despite sitting eight points out of the East’s final playoff spot, managed to top the Habs 4-2 on Wednesday by playing exactly the type of physical, tight-checking game which wouldn’t be out of place in April.
“We typically have success playing tight-checking games and grinding teams down while keeping it simple,” explained Max Pacioretty, who picked up his 27th goal of the season midway through the second, finding the back of the net just eight seconds after Milan Michalek opened the scoring for the Sens. “But we got away from that too early tonight and it’s frustrating to not be able to do it for 60 minutes, especially in front of Ticker, because we owe him a good game.”
Despite a solid 35-save performance from Dustin Tokarski, the Habs were unable to take advantage of the greenhorn goaltender on the other side of the ice, solving Andrew Hammond with just two of the 44 shots sent the 27-year-old BC product’s way.
“We keep making it too easy on goaltenders. We’re not getting dirty goals. I personally need to get more screens – more second and third chances – against division rivals when we’re playing tight-checking physical games like tonight,” prescribed Pacioretty, who instead lit the lamp with his trademark snipe. “They were able to score dirty goals tonight and now we need to do the same.”
The Canadiens’ 44 shots on goal may have represented a season-high, but Michel Therrien, who moved in to 46th place ahead of John Muckler for the most games as an NHL head coach on Wednesday, has been around long enough to spot the difference between quantity and quality.
“We were playing the type of game we should never allow ourselves to get into. It’s fine to have 44 shots but not when you’re also giving up so many scoring chances,” argued the Habs bench boss. “Limiting chances is just as important as creating them, and we gave up way too many tonight.”
To the Canadiens’ credit, limiting chances was always going to be a challenge thanks to a suddenly depleted D squad. While Montreal has been on pace for its lowest total of combined man-games lost to injury in over six years this season with just 50 to date, the injury bug has since bitten the Canadiens’ defensive corps hard.
After losing veteran Sergei Gonchar during Saturday’s game against Toronto, Alexei Emelin became the Canadiens’ latest casualty on Wednesday, leaving the game following an awkward hit into the boards just 20 seconds off the opening puck drop. Then came the loss of star rearguard P.K. Subban for the second half of the middle frame.
“It was tough to play with just four defensemen for a while there. Seeing Emelin go down like that so early into the game was a difficult blow to take. He went into the boards hard,” acknowledged Nathan Beaulieu who did his best to pick up the slack with 24:00 of ice time, not to mention netting his first career NHL goal. “After that Subban went down while sacrificing himself in front of a shot. Playing with just five d-men is hard enough, but four is even tougher.”
Paired with Gonchar since December, Beaulieu knows the Canadiens have lost more than a pair of defensive workhorses, but also leaders.
“It’s not going to be easy. They’re two key pieces of this team,” continued the burgeoning blue liner on Gonchar and Emelin.”Hopefully they’ll be back soon, because they’ve been a big part of our success so far.”
In the meantime, the Habs will now dip back into the system and hopefully find the next Beaulieu, who has come into his own through 42 games during his first full season in Montreal.
“Playing with just five defensemen is a lot to ask from our guys,” added Therrien. “You never want to lose veteran players, but at the same time, it gives the young guys a chance to prove themselves.”
Jarred Tinordi will be the next Habs hopeful to get that chance, called up from Hamilton moments after the final siren sounded in Ottawa.Steven Nechay is a writer for canadiens.com
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