Let the playoffs begin.
The Canadiens limped to the finish line of this condensed 56-game NHL season with a 4-3 overtime loss to the Edmonton Oilers Wednesday night at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens finished the season in fourth place in the all-Canadian North Division with a 24-21-11 record (including 13-11-4 at the Bell Centre) and were winless in their last five games (0-3-2). They will meet the Toronto Maple Leafs in the first round of the playoffs, which will start next week. The final game of the regular season is scheduled for next Wednesday when the Vancouver Canucks play the Calgary Flames.
Nick Suzuki scored twice for the Canadiens and Cole Caufield added a single. Alex Chiasson, Ryan Nugent-Hopkins and Leon Draisaitl scored in regulation time for the Oilers before Dominik Kahun scored the winner only 27 seconds into OT. The Oilers’ Connor McDavid picked up two assists, giving him 33-71-104 totals in 55 games to lead the NHL in scoring.
This COVID-19 season was a roller-coaster ride for the Canadiens, who got off to a 7-1-2 start and were 9-5-4 when head coach Claude Julien was fired in late February. They went 15-16-7 under interim head coach Dominique Ducharme.
“Coming in, it was kind of a unique situation,” Ducharme said after Wednesday’s game. “Even the first day I said it. If you asked me the way to become a head coach and becoming head coach of the Canadiens, I would probably write the story differently. I said it the first day. And then we encountered even more and different challenges with the schedule and the COVID and all those things. Every situation as a coach, every level, it’s experience and it’s something that you need to go through. It makes us as a group a stronger group to go through those things and for me, personally, like other experiences it makes me grow as a coach.”
Ducharme didn’t even get a full practice before taking over as head coach and there was very little practice time all season because of the condensed schedule. That made it difficult for Ducharme to implement the new system he wants the Canadiens to play.
The Canadiens will now get two days off before beginning playoff preparations with a practice Saturday at the Bell Sports Complex in Brossard. Injured players Carey Price (concussion), Brendan Gallagher (fractured thumb), Shea Weber (upper body) and Phillip Danault (concussion) are all expected to be ready to play when the playoffs begin.
“I really believe that we’ll have time to prepare now for the playoffs,” Ducharme said. “I think all that that we lived and have gone through … I said it before: we’re going to get through it and it’s going to make us stronger. I think we’re going to be stronger because of everything that we went through this year.”
Take the night off
With a playoff spot clinched and the first-round matchup with the Leafs already confirmed before Wednesday’s game, Ducharme decided to sit out some of his key players against the Oilers.
Goalie Jake Allen, defencemen Jeff Petry and Joel Edmundson, and forwards Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson and Eric Staal all had the night off. Ducharme noted that Staal is dealing with an injury.
Cayden Primeau started in goal with Charlie Lindgren dressed as his backup. Primeau allowed four goals on 22 shots and seemed to be fighting the puck much of the night. The 21-year-old allowed two goals on the first seven shots he faced. Primeau finishes the season with a 1-2-1 record, a 4.16 goals-against average and a .849 save percentage.
Defenceman Xavier Ouellet and forward Jesse Ylonen, who were called up from the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Wednesday morning, were both be in the lineup. Ylonen, selected by the Canadiens in the second round (35th overall) of the 2018 NHL Draft, made his NHL debut and the 21-year-old had one shot on goal in 11:23 of ice time while playing right wing on the fourth line with Michael Frolik and Alex Belzile. In 26 games with the Rocket this season, Ylonen posted 9-8-17 totals.
Sean Burke, the director of goaltending, replaced assistant coach Alex Burrows behind the bench for the game.
“(Burrows) had some symptoms and just to make sure we’re clear he was not with the team this morning and this afternoon, so Sean’s going to be behind the bench with me and Luke (Richardson),” Ducharme explained before the game.
Finally a break
The Canadiens will certainly enjoy this long break before the playoffs begin after playing their final 25 games over 44 days.
“I don’t think any of us will ever go through a stretch of hockey like this again,” Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot said. “Everything about this year has been unique and this last stretch has been exactly that. It’s been unique. A ton of hockey. It almost felt like we lived at the Bell Centre or whatever game rink we were playing at. It was a lot of hockey, but we’re through it now. We get a nice break and get ready for playoffs.”
“It definitely has been a grind, especially when we had that week off (after Joel Armia tested positive for COVID-19 in March) and the games got even tighter,” Suzuki said. “Just trying to learn how to prepare myself for each game, doing the right things after each game to feel better the next day so it doesn’t catch up to you.”
The Canadiens will be big underdogs against the Maple Leafs, but Chiarot is confident in his team’s chances because of the character he says in the room.
“I know that everyone in there is judging off of last year and the way we played in the (playoff) bubble I’m pretty confident moving forward that we’ll see guys bring their A game for the playoffs,” Chiarot said.
A glimpse of the future
During an informal media scrum early last season when the Canadiens were in Vancouver, GM Marc Bergevin wondered about the possibility of having Suzuki and Caufield play together on the same line at some point in the future.
That future was on display Wednesday with Suzuki at centre between Caufield and Armia. Suzuki had two goals, while Caufield had a goal and an assist.
“I thought we had a great game, creating a lot,” Suzuki said. “The chemistry is going to keep getting better. He sees the ice very well, he’s always ready to shoot. I like playing with guys like that.”
“I thought we created a lot of chances,” Caufield said. “We had the puck most of the time out there. Armia out there helped us out a lot, too. Nick makes some great plays, finds me when I’m open and stuff. I felt we had some chemistry there tonight and he’s obviously a lot of fun to play with.”
Suzuki finished the season with 15-26-41 totals in 56 games. That matches his point total from last season as a rookie when he had 13-28-41 totals in 71 games. Suzuki finished this season with 7-7-14 totals in the last 11 games.
“It’s pretty well known that I had a little rough stretch there, but I’m seeing the game, feeling the game a lot better right now,” he said. “I just want to keep that going into the playoffs and help the team win in any way I can.”
As for Caufield, Ducharme wasn’t ready to confirm the rookie will be in the lineup when the playoffs begin, but it’s hard to imagine him not being there after posting 4-1-5 totals 10 games.
Ducharme has been using video to work with Caufield as the 20-year-old adjusts to the NHL game.
“Just going over video, shift by shift, breaking it down it makes the game simple,” Caufield said. “Instead of having it all come at you at once he breaks it down and makes it pretty simple for me. So there’s some things in the game that I didn’t even have to think about. It just happened because of that talk. It was good for me and we’ll continue that moving forward.”
Finding their identity
The Canadiens still seem to be struggling to find their identity with Ducharme as head coach.
The extra practice time now leading up to the playoffs should help with that.
“Going through a coaching change, things take time,” Allen said. “You have one coach that preaches one thing and you have another coach that comes in and tries to solidify his message. I’ve been through coaching changes, so it takes a while.
“I think when we’re at the top of our game we’re on top of pucks, there’s no hesitation in our game,” the goalie added. “We’re quick, we’re relentless. We’re physical, but we’re not always slamming people into the boards. We’re stick-checking, we’re in the right places at the right time. Sort of not giving other teams room to breathe and that’s the way we play. We’re good with our speed through the neutral zone and the transition game.
“It’s not going to be perfect and easy in the playoffs that way. There’s going to be times where we can’t find our game right away for five or 10 minutes. But that’s playoff hockey and we got to find ways to stick to those guns as much as possible and get the job done. It’s definitely been a transition and a change and there’s been some ups and downs where our identity sort of strayed away. But when we play well that’s the way we play and we’re successful at it.”
Stu Cowan: Canadiens fortunate to have Allen in nets for playoff push
Oilers beat Canadiens 4-3 in overtime — again — in regular-season finale
The Canadiens outshot the Oilers 29-22 and won 61 per cent of the faceoffs, while the Oilers led 26-20 in hits.
The Canadiens went 0-for-1 on the power play, while the Oilers went 2-for-3.
Chiarot led the Canadiens with 24:08 of ice time, followed by Brett Kulak with 23:22 and Erik Gustafsson with 18:24. Suzuki led the forwards with 17:28 of ice time, followed by Caufield with 16:25 and Jake Evans with 16:05.
Caufield had five shots and Suzuki had four, while Chiarot had four hits.
Suzuki went 6-2 on faceoffs (75 per cent), Evans went 9-4 (69 per cent), Frolik went 3-3 (50 per cent) and Jesperi Kotkaniemi went 5-6 (45 per cent).