One of the shortest campaigns in NHL history has been excruciatingly long, and no one will miss it now that it’s gone. Least of all me, who spent almost as much time writing about the salary cap, emergency recalls and coronavirus protocols as I did to the team on the ice.
About the Canadians, who went through the bumps and bruises, the nasal swabs that tickle the brain, the four trips to Western Canada, the contact with Covid-19 that stopped them for a week, the series from nine to 10 games against each of the six other Canadian teams in empty buildings, sacrificed social life, the pandemic blues and having to face the gaunt of their end-of-season schedule without many of their most important players: they have extended their winless streak to five games with a 4-3 overtime loss to Connor McDavid, Leon Draisaitl and a fully-dressed Edmonton Oilers team.
Expect something different with defeated players Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Eric Staal, Jeff Petry, Joel Edmundson and Jake Allen joining Carey Price (concussion), Shea Weber (upper body injury) Brendan Gallagher ( fractured thumb), Phillip Danault (concussion) and Jonathan Drouin (personal leave) on the sidelines?
As for Jesse Ylönen (playing his first NHL game), Alex Belzile (playing his second NHL game), Cayden Primeau (playing his sixth game in the NHL) and Jon Merrill’s deep defensive triumvirate, Erik Gustafsson and Xavier Ouellet, I didn’t do it either. .
This squad, as built, will most likely, with the exception of Drouin, finally be intact next week when the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin. And while I’d like to speak philosophically about what the last five games meant – with the Canadiens looking little or not at all like who they are supposed to be – I don’t see the connection between them and those. which come next.
These games are not indicative of anything, let alone predictive.
“We are preparing for the first game of the playoffs,” said Canadiens coach Dominique Ducharme, “and it has no impact on our direction.
What will be the share of what we have seen in 56 games?
In the top 10, the Canadiens have shown us what they can be at their best, when they are excited, fresh and ready to play as general manager Marc Bergevin described them ahead of the season – a team that “wants to saying business “is” here to win. “, And able to” play as you like “.
Then they slammed it the other way around, fell into habits that resembled last season’s failures, and cost Claude Julien, Kirk Muller and Stéphane Waite their jobs.
Ducharme took over from Julien, Alex Burrows to Muller and Sean Burke to Waite, and while the team appeared to be implementing what the new coaches had instituted as a completely overhauled system, Joel Armia caught a variant of Covid-19 and the NHL disconnected. Canadians and revamped their schedule to allow them to end the season with 25 games in 44 days.
Gallagher’s loss in the team’s fourth game after the break was devastating. With the casualty list continuing to grow, a series of trade delays prevent Ducharme from dressing his best lineup and the relentless schedule was torturous.
“I don’t think any of us will go through a period of hockey like this again,” said Ben Chiarot, who came back from a broken hand to play the last 16 games in 25 nights. “Everything about this year has been unique, and this last stretch has been exactly that. It was unique and a ton of hockey.
“It was almost like we were living at the Bell Center.”
An empty house that on this last afternoon / evening hosted the players’ wives and children for the first time since the puck fell in January – and only because they could be home before curfew Covid from 9:30 p.m. in Quebec City. has begun.
All to say that it was difficult. More difficult than any of us can imagine, no matter what we have all been through personally since this miserable uninvited guest made their home in our lives.
It was difficult for Ducharme, who repeated that he had always dreamed of coaching the Canadiens, but without taking the position as he did. There is no way he would have considered doing his chores under these conditions – without being able to train for consecutive days and without being able to push players in a way he might have had in. under normal circumstances.
“At a certain point, towards the end, I found the guys were taking it,” he said, “but I had to choose my places to push because you could see in their eyes that it didn’t. there was little to take. “
Canadians lost more than they wanted, and certainly more than they deserved. But even though they bent a lot, they never broke and they found a way to collect enough points to reach their first goal.
In the process, Nick Suzuki has become a better player than the one who started the season. He finished with two goals on Wednesday, bringing his tally to 15 goals and 41 points, which was a nice bump of 13 goals and 41 points in 71 games of his rookie season a year ago.
Suzuki struggled to get out of the break, but overcame to score 14 points in his last 11 games.
“It was really tough, especially when we had this week off and the games got even tighter,” said the 21-year-old. “So I was just trying to learn to prepare myself for each game, to do the right things after each game to feel better the next day so that it doesn’t catch up with you.”
Cole Caufield had a baptism by fire with this process. The 20-year-old left the University of Wisconsin-Madison, immediately burned the first year of his entry-level contract, tore him up in two games in the American Hockey League, got on a plane to destination Edmonton to embark on his first-ever big league road trip, which made his league debut after a few practices, scored back-to-back overtime winners and collected a $ 25,000 bonus for participating in his 10th Wednesday match.
Caufield scored the first goal and assisted on the Suzuki team’s second goal, bringing his tally to four goals and an assist. It was his best game – one everyone should take with a grain of salt because, as Ducharme said, it wasn’t really played with the intensity of the NHL – but it got better. with each of them before and proved he could be an option in the playoffs. .
“I feel pretty comfortable there,” Caufield said.
One would expect him to become more and more comfortable with a well-deserved rest by Saturday and precious training time between the weekend and when the Canadiens start their heats. first round against the champions of the North Division of the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The same goes for all the Canadiens players who have gone through this unprecedented season.
I tell him good riddance. Let the fun part begin!