Your Montreal Canadiens are in the playoffs.
But unless their Tuesday night performance in Tampa Bay was an aberration, we may see a repeat of last spring’s first-round fiasco.
Riding a five-game winning streak into the home rink of a very good hockey team, perhaps the Canadiens were due for a letdown.
What we saw, however – particularly in the third period – was a collapse.
Michel Therrien began his post-game media scrum by accentuating the positive.
Results elsewhere guaranteed postseason hockey for the Habs. Therrien said the Canadiens’ objective of making the playoffs had been attained.
Therrien had the right to be satisfied. Many pundits and fans thought the Canadiens would struggle all season and go down to the wire to ensure a playoff berth. I didn’t think they’d make the cut.
But with five games to play, we know there will be mid-to-late April hockey in Montreal.
Will the Canadiens still be playing in May?
Not if the 3-1 loss to Tampa Bay was an indicator.
The score flattered the Canadiens. If Carey Price hadn’t played what may have been his best game of the season, the Lightning would have won 6-1.
“We played back on our heels,” Therrien said. The coach cited “too many turnovers”, adding “you can’t take eight penalties and expect to win.”
“It hurts your tempo and disrupts time on ice,” Therrien said.
ToI was particularly discombobulated in the case of P.K. Subban. Last season’s Norris Trophy winner played a season-low 17:48.
That less ice time than Douglas Murray. But P.K. will get a chance to catch up during the suspension Murray is going to get for that absurd elbow on Mike Kostka.
P.K. averages 24:52 per game this season. In Tampa Bay, he had less even-strength ice time than any other defenceman dressed for the game.
If there’s a logical reason for this, I’m afraid it eludes me.
But the Canadiens didn’t lose because of P.K.’s low ice time.
The loss was a team effort. And the list of players who had an off night would include every player in a white jersey – with the exceptions of Carey Price, Mike Weaver, Ryan White and Michäel Bournival.
Similarly, Tampa Bay’s win was a team effort. The Lightning are a fast, tenacious and well-coached team. They pressured the Canadiens into ill-conceived plays, bad decisions and lazy penalties.
With his team leading 1-0, Lars Eller was called for holding in the Tampa Bay zone. With the game tied 1-1 in the third period, Eller took another O-zone penalty, this time for a trip.
Paroled from fourth-line duty, Eller had more penalties than shots on goal. He is playing his way out of Montreal.
With another year on his contract, Daniel Brière will be staying put. The veteran who is supposed to elevate his game at this time of the long season played played a shade over eight minutes against Tampa Bay and had the grand total of one shot, which was blocked.
Brendan Gallagher was opportunistic in tipping his 19th goal of the season past Ben Bishop. Alex Galchenyuk kept the puck alive in the Lightning crease and drew an assist on the goal, as did Weaver.
That’s your highlight reel.
Bishop was untroubled for the rest of the game – including the four shorthanded situations during which the Canadiens managed two shots. This while Price was standing on his head to keep the score respectable.
In his chalk talk on L’Antichambre, Gaston Therrien showed an example of Tampa Bay’s relentless forecheck. The only Canadiens’ defencemen capable of handling that kind of pressure, TV Therrien said, are Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban.
And P.J. Stock, not my favourite panelist on the show, made a good point when he said that with five games left to play, Therrien is STILL juggling his lines.
As a reward for how well they played in the second half of March – starting with that crazy comeback against Ottawa – the Canadiens are staying in sunny Florida until Thursday. Then they fly to Ottawa for a Friday night game against the loosey-goosey/nothing-to-play-for Senators.
On Saturday, the Canadiens are home to the playoff-hungry/everything-to-play-for Red Wings.
In addition to figuring out his third and fourth lines, Therrien will have to cope with the likely loss of Murray, whose physical presence on the back end would be an asset in Ottawa.
There’s time for tinkering before the playoffs.