There is a particular challenge at this point in the hockey season: maintaining perspective.
It’s true that the Montreal Canadiens put up only 19 shots and were shut out by a jumped-up American Hockey League team on Thursday – the New York Islanders dressed 11 rookies, the most they’ve had in the lineup since the 1970s.
For those keeping score at home, it was the first time in franchise history that the Isles had registered a shutout in Montreal.
Yes, the Habs also missed an opportunity to lock down home ice advantage in the first round, which they are in danger of missing should they drop their final game on Saturday when the New York Rangers come to town (the Tampa Bay Lightning are one point back and have a game in hand).
The Habs are on the cusp of a 100-point season, it was the hind end of a back-to-back set, they are relatively healthy – although it was announced 20-year-old winger Alex Galchenyuk will miss the first round with a lower-body injury, believed to be a knee – and the loss was only their third regulation defeat in the last 14 games.
“We’ve just got to have a little amnesia,” defenceman Mike Weaver said afterward.
Across the dressing room, teammate Daniel Brière reasoned that “we’ve played really well of late, it was a terrible game for us, but these things are going to happen.”
So why did the Habs come up short against a team they should, by rights, trounce with stakes to play for?
Where to begin?
Perhaps with the fourth line getting pinned deep in its own zone early in the first – tough guy George Parros logged a shift that went 2:07, roughly half the time he spends on the ice in total in an average game.
The Habs’ defence had trouble coping with the Isles’ speed, they couldn’t manage to gain the opposing blue line without turning it over, and their power-play (0-for-3) couldn’t get them back in the game.
There were issues with gap control, defensive zone coverage, zone entries, passes went astray, shots missed the net.
The Habs have been out-possessed at even-strength in four of their last seven games according to extraskater.com, so it can’t count as a massive surprise.
They compounded it all with some crucial penalties in the second period – a five-minute major to Douglas Murray, who slammed New York rookie Johan Sundstrom into the boards from behind (it was Murray’s first game back from a three-game suspension for an elbow on Tampa’s Mike Kostka), followed by a high-sticking penalty to Thomas Vanek.
The Murray penalty was mitigated by a roughing minor to New York’s Matt Carkner as he tried to get at the big Swede, and Montreal even had a 4-on-3 power-play when Isles defenceman Kevin Czuczman chipped the puck over the glass.
The Habs’ best chance of the game came when Vanek slipped a slide-rule diagonal pass to Max Pacioretty at the side of the net, and the American winger will have thought he had his 40th goal of the season as good as scored – Evgeni Nabokov had other ideas, and stuck out a pad.
A couple of minutes later, Isles’ rookie Ryan Strome beat Carey Price with a perfect shot that went off the post and in at 15:05. Four minutes after that, Vanek went to the box after a long spell of Islander buzzing in the Montreal end, rookie Brock Nelson shimmied at the blue line and blew past the Habs’ Alexei Emelin, then sniped a wrister in to the short-side top corner to make it 2-0.
That would be all the Isles needed – the Habs poured on the pressure late when Anders Lee tripped Subban to set up a six-on-four situation in the final minute, but there would be no goals.
“The coaches warned us that’s a young team, but I know a lot of those guys and they play hard ... they came out hard and we were outplayed,” Vanek said. “Not every night’s perfect, I’m not too concerned about it. It’s no fun losing, but sometimes you’re just not good enough. Tonight you’ve got to give them credit and at the same time, we sucked.”
The off-night seemingly extended to coach Michel Therrien, who bafflingly didn’t get his leading power-play point-getter, P.K. Subban, out on the 4-on-3 advantage.
He also sat top centre Tomas Plekanec for a spell in the second period.
None of this should matter if the Habs win on Saturday against a Rangers squad that has already assured itself of home ice.
And Thursday’s stumble – and the recent games in which the Canadiens have ridden their luck and hot goaltending – shouldn’t obscure the broader reality that they aren’t exactly backing into the playoffs.
“You want home ice, you want to go into the playoffs feeling good about your game,” said captain Brian Gionta. “And we’ve got Saturday night to do that.”