A 4-2 loss to the Washington Capitals at Bell Centre on Monday made a difficult journey tougher still. With 31 games remaining on their schedule, the Canadiens (22-22-7) are sixth in the Atlantic Division, 10 points out of the second wild card into the playoffs from the Eastern Conference.
It was sloppiness, a word used by players and coach Claude Julien after the game Monday, that cost Montreal a chance to extend its winning streak to three. A victory would have vaulted the Canadiens past the idle Buffalo Sabres by a point in the wild-card race, at least temporarily, the Sabres holding two games in hand.
Life gets no easier for the Canadiens, whose next game is at Buffalo on Thursday (7 p.m. ET, ESPN+, MSG-B, TSN2, RDS, NHL.TV).
Video: WSH@MTL: Tatar, Petry get Canadiens started early
But there was no white flag of surrender flying Monday, no matter how another pothole has cratered Montreal's road. Two veterans, defenseman Jeff Petry and forward Dale Weise, indeed were pointing optimistically to the Canadiens' strong run at the end of last season, going 7-2-1 in their last 10 to fall two points shy of the 2019 playoffs.
"We were in a very similar spot last year at the end, fighting to get in that last spot," Petry said. "We went on a little bit of a run last year, it's just a matter of winning a game, bottling that feeling and building off that."
Said Weise: "You win one and then you get two, and it starts to get rolling, you get a good feeling. Before the [All-Star] break, we had three [wins] in four. You saw the run this team went on at the end of last year, they can string some wins. It's the same bodies in here."
"Get some [injured] guys back pretty soon and there's no reason why this team can't get on a roll and get in the playoffs."
Forward Brendan Gallagher, second on the Canadiens with 15 goals, has missed the past six games with headaches after a Dec. 31 concussion sidelined him for four of the previous five games, but participated in a full practice Tuesday and could return against the Sabres. Forwards Jonathan Drouin (wrist) and Paul Byron (knee), each injured against the Capitals on Nov. 15, have missed the past 32 games. Drouin, like Gallagher, practiced in full Tuesday and is getting closer to being back in the lineup; there is no timetable for Byron's return.
Video: MTL@CGY: Gallagher nets goal from impossible angle
With forward Alex Ovechkin serving his one-game suspension for skipping the 2020 Honda NHL All-Star Game, the NHL-leading Capitals found a way to get it done on Monday, pouncing on their chances to win their fourth straight.
"The second period was sloppy by us," Canadiens forward Ilya Kovalchuk said. "[Washington] makes chances from nowhere, that's why they're in first place. We had some opportunities to tie the game in the last six, seven minutes and they didn't go in."
The second was "a real sloppy period," Julien said. "We have a no-quit attitude, which I think everybody saw in the third period. We worked hard and we tried to get ourselves back. The intentions are good but we need to be better than we were tonight with the puck, and even without the puck at times. Our sloppiness costs us games and we can't afford to be sloppy."
Montreal, 10-13-4 at home this season, had given its fans some hope early, Petry scoring at 1:55 of the first period. But a power-play goal by Washington forward Tom Wilson with 90 seconds left in the first tilted the ice the visitors' way and the Capitals went ahead to stay 2:03 into the second on a goal credited to center Travis Boyd.
In fact, Boyd's pass was directed behind Canadiens goalie Carey Price by the skate of Petry. A turnover by defenseman Shea Weber produced Washington's opportunistic third goal, scored by forward Jakub Vrana at 14:51 of the second.
Video: WSH@MTL: Vrana capitalizes on aggressive forecheck
Missed offensive chances and bad bounces in their own end have become a bit of a theme for Montreal this season.
"It's frustrating," Petry said. "We had two bounces that resulted in goals against and a few that easily could have gone in the back of their net [that] didn't. That's the way things have been happening in stretches this year -- when you need a bounce, you're not getting it. We can't hope for the bounces, we have to just play, the right way within our system, and things will start to turn."
Weise marked his 500th NHL game with a goal at 7:30 of the third, his first of the season and 55th of his NHL career shaving the Capitals' lead to 3-2, but Washington goalie Braden Holtby was up to any challenge the rest of the way, finishing with 31 saves.
"It's a lot of games, a lot of hard work went into it, a lot of ups and downs," said Weise, playing his 10th game with the Canadiens this season, called up from Laval of the American Hockey League on Jan. 26. "To get a goal on a night like that is nice. It would have been nicer to get a win, but that's a good hockey club over there."
Price could be faulted for none of the three goals against him on the 39 shots he faced, center Nicklas Backstrom icing the game into an empty Montreal net with 23 seconds left.
At the end, Kovalchuk was echoing the no-quit mantra of his coach, Canadiens fans now clinging to it like a lifeline.
"This was the first game after the break, it's not an excuse," he said. "But we're going to fight to the finish. We're going to continue to fight and never going to give up."