No cheers rained down from the stands on Jonathan Drouin when he scored the shootout winner on home ice Thursday night.
Drouin was the lone scorer in the shootout as the Montreal Canadiens edged the Philadelphia Flyers 3-2 in an empty Bell Centre, hours after Quebec public health officials asked the Habs to play without any fans in their arena in an effort to slow the spread of COVID-19.
The Canadiens agreed to the provincial government’s request, making the game the first at Bell Centre without spectators since Game 4 of the North Division semi-final against the Toronto Maple Leafs on May 25.
“Today was a bit of a wake-up call,” said Drouin. “We weren’t expecting that there wouldn’t be fans in the stands this year with the vaccines.
“We were told the opposite but it’s tough to see that again, without the fans’ energy. After that, health and safety is more important than going to watch a hockey game.”
There is no word yet on whether Bell Centre will welcome fans Saturday as the rival Boston Bruins make their first visit to Montreal since Nov. 26, 2019. The Bruins had seven players on COVID-19 protocol before their 3-0 loss to the New York Islanders on Thursday, including stars Patrice Bergeron and Brad Marchard.
Drouin said he was apprehensive about playing a team with that many players placed on protocol.
“I’m not really comfortable playing against people that might have COVID,” said Drouin. “When you have seven guys on the team [with COVID], you can have two or three others that get it tomorrow, I don’t know.”
“Anyway, I don’t feel comfortable to play with that. That’s not what we were told this year with the vaccines. Of course things change over time but it’s not really ideal.”
Canadiens head coach Dominique Ducharme didn’t want to weigh in on a potential halt to playing because of COVID-19 but understood that some players would be worried by the situation. He said he has faith the NHL will protect the players.
“Not that I feel it [in the locker-room] but at the same time it’s a reflection of our society regarding this situation,” Ducharme said. “Some people are more comfortable and some are more worried. A team is a little bit like a reflection of society.”
Jackson Cates said that the Flyers found out about the decision to play in an empty arena right before warm-ups.
“The reaction was that it’s just another game and we can’t let that bother us,” he said. “We’ve got to play the right way, stick to the structure and build our own energy.”
The Canadiens (7-21-3) focused their own energy to snap a seven-game losing skid. Artturi Lehkonen opened scoring in the first period and Laurent Dauphin forced overtime with his first goal as a Hab.
“It felt good to break the streak. Of course it would have been better to be in front of fans but I’ll take it anyway,” Dauphin said.
Cayden Primeau, son of former Flyer Keith Primeau, allowed two goals on the 38 shots he faced and saved every Philadelphia shootout attempt.
Max Willman and Cates, with his first NHL goal, replied for the Flyers (11-12-5). Carter Hart stopped 38 shots and only allowed Drouin’s goal in the shootout.
Lehkonen deflected Brett Kulak’s shot from the point to bag his second goal of the season.
Philadelphia tied it 2:20 into the second period when Willman took advantage of Montreal forward Nick Suzuki falling in front of the net.
Cates drove the puck in the offensive zone himself and beat Primeau with a wrist shot to make it 2-1 in the final minute of the second.
Montreal tied the game up 2-2 at 14:21 into the third period. Dauphin took advantage of a Hart rebound to net his first goal as a Hab.
Centre Mathieu Perrault didn’t take part in the game. The Canadiens later confirmed that it was due to a lower-body injury.