It was up to veterans Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec to convince the world, and perhaps themselves, that the Montreal Canadiens still have hope.
The team that looked so solid in coming back to eliminate the first-place overall Boston Bruins is down 3-1 to the New York Rangers in the NHL Eastern Conference final, but Gionta insisted Monday that morale is good and the Canadiens are far from finished.
They will be facing elimination in Game 5 of the best-of-seven series at the Bell Centre on Tuesday night, however.
“It’s no secret: you start doing the right things, you start getting rewarded for it and momentum builds,” Gionta said. “You keep carrying that.
“A couple of teams have been able to do that this year, the Kings and the Rangers. So it’s not something that can’t be done and with the group we have in here, we believe we can do it. And we believe we’ve got better as the series goes on.”
Gionta and Plekanec were part of a Canadiens team that came back from a 3-1 deficit to upset the high-powered Washington Capitals en route to their last trip to the conference final in 2010.
They did it that time with desperate shot-blocking, spectacular goaltending from Jaroslav Halak and a quiet belief that they could pull it off.
This time, they are looking to third-stringer Dustin Tokarski to imitate Halak. The 24-year-old has been solid in goal since replacing the injured Carey Price in Game 2, allowing eight goals in 11 periods over three games.
He helped them claim an overtime win in New York in Game 3 but was beaten on Martin St. Louis’ overtime snipe in Game 4 on Sunday night.
The Canadiens have played the Rangers close to evenly since a 7-2 loss in the series opener, but there were worrying signs in their latest loss. Defenceman Alexei Emein missed most of the first period after blocking a shot and then was mostly immobile after he returned.
And top forwards Thomas Vanek, who has struggled all series, and Max Pacioretty were all-but invisible.
And they remain without Price, the Canadian gold medallist from the Sochi Olympics in February who suffered a suspected right knee injury when New York’s Chris Kreider crashed the net in the second period of the series opener.
Price skated for about 20 minutes without equipment before the team’s optional practice, but coach Michel Therrien said he will not be back in this series.
For Gionta, hope comes from a feeling that his team is getting better and still has time to turn things around, as they did when they fell behind 3-2 to the Bruins in the conference semifinal.
The Canadiens rebounded with their best game of the playoffs in Game 6 and closed it out in Boston two days later.
“We were able to wear (Boston’s) defence down with our speed and our forechecking,” he said. “We need to get better at that and I think that’s what we’ve got better at as (the New York series) went on.
“Try to take advantage of their defencemen down low, try to spend some time in the offensive zone, and start to make breakdowns and make things happen that way. Our backs are against the wall. It’s win or go home. I would expect the same kind of effort as we had against Boston for sure.”
They could also improve on special teams, although they had a breakthrough when P.K. Subban finally got a power play goal to tie the game in the third period on the sixth of Montreal’s eight man-advantages.
“We sat down after the second period and made a little adjustment and it worked and hopefully we can carry it over to the next game,” said Plekanec. “Special teams was one of the things that we probably weren’t good enough at in the series so far, so it would be a good time to turn that around.
“It’s not over. I didn’t see one guy that was down after the game.”
Plekanec was among five players in the Game 4 lineup who joined the reserve players in the optional skate, along with Tokarski, Rene Bourque, Michael Bournival and defenceman Francis Bouillon, who scored in his first appearance in the series in place of rookie Nathan Beaulieu.
Another potential boost for the Canadiens would be to score the first goal, which they did consistently in the first two rounds but have yet to do against the Rangers.
It would perhaps give them another missing element — confidence.
“We have to start playing more with confidence, making the right plays at the right time,” said Plekanec. “When there’s a play, we’ve got to make it.
“When there’s no play, we’ve got to go for the puck. Sometimes we didn’t make the right decisions, so that’s an aspect that definitely can be better. Confidence is a thing that, when you don’t make the right plays, you start chipping it in instead of making plays, and sometimes it’s a situation where you should have made a play.”
Therrien feels his team has shown it can bounce back against the Bruins and can do it again.
Gionta, a Stanley Cup winner with New Jersey in 2003, agrees.
“Part of the playoffs part of being a professional, of being part of a winning team is being able to regroup and forget about it and deal with the circumstances that are ahead of you and not with what’s behind you,” he said.
“Guys were disappointed. It was a huge blow. But the series isn’t over. We still believe in this group so no one is panicking.”