Here’s the ideal regular-season schedule for your Montreal Canadiens:
41 games against the Chicago Blackhawks
41 against the Boston Bruins.
OK, maybe book a home-and-away against the other 27 teams in the NHL, just for variety.
That would leave 14 games against Boston and Chicago, two teams that seem to bring out the best in our heroes.
Sadly, the schedule doesn’t work that way.
The Canadiens have to play teams against which they struggle: Toronto, Florida, the elite of the Western Conference and, on Super Bowl Saturday, the Tampa Bay Lightning.
It was last week’s Carolina game all over again, the difference being this time Carey Price didn’t produce the shutout that delivered two points against the Hurricanes.
He came close.
The Canadiens’ goaltender made 34 saves in regulation time – including a penalty-shot stop on Nikita Kucherov. The only puck to elude Price was an anodyne Nate Thompson “shot” that was headed harmlessly across the front of the Canadiens’ net until rdirected by P.K. Subban’s stick.
Thompson’s second goal was more legitimate. It came with 24 seconds remaining in overtime as the Tampa Bay forward was left unattended in front of Price and cashed the Lightning’s only SoG of OT.
The visitors were full value for the win.
Tampa Bay hustled and played tight defence from the opening puck-drop. They outshot the Canadiens 36-29 and outhit them 27-14.
Save for the times avid Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher were on the ice, the guys in white jerseys dominated puck possession and played comfortable, error-free hockey in their zone, seldom troubled by attacking forwards.
Fifty-five games into the season, Michel Therrien continues to juggle his bottom three lines in search of combinations that might produce some semblance of even-strength offence.
With Michaël Bournival sidelined by the flu, Travis Moen began the game on a line with Tomas Plekanec and Brian Gionta. By the end of regulation, Daniel Brière, who began the game on the fourth line and played 3:02 through two periods, had been bumped up with Pleks and the captain.
Lars Eller centred, at various times, Moen, Brandon Prust and Rene Bourque. The third line briefly included Hamilton call-up Christian Thomas, who played all of five shifts and four minutes in front of his father, Steve, who’s an assistant coach with the Lightning.
There was more stability in the defence pairings, and Nathan Beaulieu contributed another strong game in partnership with Douglas Murray.
Andrei Markov played 28:25 paired with Alexei Emelin, P.K. Subban was on for the winning goal in OT. He might have been a tad gassed after a 4-on-4 shift that looked like an audition for the men’s figure-skating competition in Sochi.
On a day with young fans in the stands and little to cheer about – beyond that ridiculous brawl erupting during a TV Timeout, triggered by a Brandon Prust spear on Ben Bishop that drew the wrath of Don Cherry – P.K. was at his hot-dogging best … or maybe worst, in the eyes of Steve Yzerman.
At least Subban could be relied upon to move the puck into the Tampa Bay zone. With the exception of DD and his linemates, the Canadiens were repeatedly stymied in their efforts to cross the visitors’ blueline.
They miss Alex Galchenyuk.
And if the limited ice time of recent call-ups Joonas Nattinen, Louis Leblanc and Thomas is any indication, there isn’t much help in Hamilton.
As my great and good friend Pat Hickey wrote in his Gazette piece on Saturday, the Canadiens are still in their seemingly-eternal rebuilding mode.
They have a great goaltender, a Norris Trophy defenceman, one dangerous forward line, a valuable 200-foot player in Tomas Plekanec and an outstanding prospect in Alex Galchenyuk.
That isn’t enough to win consistently … unless they’re playing Boston or Chicago.