Still Talkin’ Habs: Unlikely heroes clinch Habs playoff spot in 4-3 OT loss to Oilers
Published Tuesday, May 11, 2021 7:15AM EDT Last Updated Tuesday, May 11, 2021 10:34AM EDT
MONTREAL -- The Montreal Canadiens backed into the playoffs without officially backing into the playoffs, losing 4-3 to the Edmonton Oilers in overtime, but securing the single point they needed to qualify Monday night.
The Habs will be going to the postseason on the back of the 10 loser points they compiled throughout the season, the most of any playoff-bound team. Only they and the St. Louis Blues are going into playoffs with more losses than wins. But hey, they’re in.
According to General Manager Marc Bergevin, that’s the goal. Will they make any noise? Let’s just say it’s more likely to be a matinee movie than opening night.
We could continue to gripe about another uneven performance against the Oilers, and based on the team’s inconsistency so far, there will almost certainly be a chance to do that in a week’s time.
Instead, let’s focus on the three guys who dragged the Canadiens kicking and screaming into the playoffs with an outstanding performance against the best player in the world.
Connor McDavid was comatose, but somehow still picked up two points, including the game-winner.
Admittedly, he and Leon Draisaitl looked uninterested for large portions of the game. But that shouldn’t lessen the quality of play we saw from Jake Evans, Artturi Lehkonen and Paul Byron last night.
The trio was far and away the team’s best players. Dogged and determined in defense, while quick and creative in attack.
All three played with speed, tenacity and combativeness, the supposed identity of the Habs that has gone missing far too many times this season.
It was an encouragingly positive story to put a bow on the up and down year the Canadiens have experienced.
“For Dom to put our line together like that, to go against Connor, shows how much confidence he has in us,” said Byron post-game. “I thought Jake handled the task exceptionally well and Art, can’t say enough about his big goal in the third period. Getting his goal called back, to go out there and fire that rocket in, that was great for him. He works hard and he deserved that one.”
For Evans in particular, to be a young centreman essentially replaced at the deadline by Eric Staal, his confidence has shone through when many on the team have regressed.
He hasn’t quit and has seized his limited chances with hard work at multiple positions.
The contrast of his rise with the continued faltering of Jesperi Kotkaniemi was an underlying theme last night, the seventh round pick significantly outplaying the thirrd overall draft pick.
Yes, Evans has four years on the young Finn and their expectations for success are markedly different. But from purely an effort standpoint, he should be an example to Kotkaniemi for how to rediscover his form.
Interim head coach Dominique Ducharme just received confirmation that not only should all three Byron, Lehkonen and Evans be in the lineup when the playoffs start, but should be given the chance to begin together.
That takes care of one personnel decision for Ducharme before the healthy bodies start returning.
The other three forward lines were largely disappointing last night and did nothing to inspire much confidence about chemistry between the Canadiens.
If healthy, it appears like the decision down the middle between who will sit and who will start will come down to Kotkaniemi and Staal.
Based on ice time Monday night, the odd man out would be Kotkaniemi, who played a team-low 9:13. There is no reason to sugar coat it: he has not been good. Downright awful at times. But so has Staal.
That has been the most frustrating aspect of Ducharme’s deployment. Both have a dismal three points in 21 games.
Why does the coach continue to grant opportunities to a veteran he’s known for a month over a young, supposed cornerstone piece of the franchise?
If Ducharme were to sit Kotkaniemi in the playoffs in favour of Staal, it would be the biggest mistake this franchise has made since the last time they messed up a top prospect, something that happens with stunning regularity.
The Finn will have one more chance to impress his boss Wednesday night and for the sake of the future of the club and his own, he has to seize it. All eyes will be on him.
Other than that, won’t it be nice to kick the feet up and watch a meaningless Habs game for the first time this season? The wait is officially over.
Jake Allen – 7/10
Didn’t have to make any of the spectacular or timely saves he’s been called to make of late. Rebound control was iffy the first two periods. But settled down in the third. Without him, Habs don’t make the playoffs. Simple as that.
Jeff Petry – 7/10
Was the only defenseman who was able to repeatedly skate the puck out of his zone with control. Passing was decent enough but disappointed on the power play. More physical than we’ve seen from him recently. Led the team in ice time to no one’s surprise. With the playoffs locked up, wouldn’t play him on Wednesday. Too important.
Joel Edmundson – 7/10
Felt like he skated better. Made those simple passes to either Petry or his centreman to get away from the Oilers forecheck. Led the blueline with three hits and back to his best in the plus/minus category, going plus three. Kept it simple.
Ben Chiarot – 6/10
Saw him out there on the power play and did a quadruple take. Wasn’t necessarily bad, particularly in transition where he coped well with the rushing Oilers. But his pairing got hemmed in repeatedly in his zone, getting stuck along the boards. Unable to get out and stay out. Breakouts were wayward several times.
Brett Kulak – 6/10
His passing was shambolic at times, particularly to forwards in the neutral zone. Settled down the second half of the game. Spent far too much time in his own zone. Didn’t commit himself forward all that much which made him less noticeable.
Alexander Romanov – 5/10
He’s having a tough time defensively at the worst possible time. Failed to tie up Neal on his goal, could have done better in the build-up for Nugent-Hopkins goal and caught between two minds on Kahun’s goal. He and Merrill were separated and shouldn’t play together anymore. Stood out in the third with his passing. He and Petry are the only two who can pass and skate their way out of trouble.
Jon Merrill – 4/10
Led the team with four giveaways. Same defensive struggles as Romanov without the redeeming offensive skills. They clearly struggle to read off of each other in their own zone, highlighted by their positioning mishap on Neal’s goal. Consistently hemmed in on his offside. Minus two and played the least of any blueliner.
Nick Suzuki – 6/10
Really quiet night from him, but stood out due to the shabby performances by the other centremen not named Evans. Continued to show some nice anger and compete level in one-on-one battles. Strangely led the team in blocked shots. Not much of anything offensively.
Tyler Toffoli – 6/10
No shots on goal is not a good sign. Usually has at least one decent chance to score a game. Didn’t happen for him last night. Didn’t create much of anything. Had some offensive zone time but that’s it. If there’s anyone up front who deserved an off-night, it was him. Will probably score on Wednesday to make up for it.
Joel Armia – 5/10
Led the forwards with four shots on goal. Can’t really remember any of them though. Replaced by Anderson next to Suzuki and Toffoli and had some okay possessions in Edmonton’s zone on the right of Kotkaniemi and Tatar. But was mostly a non-factor. Prone to brain farts like his delay of game penalty.
Eric Staal – 5/10
The construction of his line with Perry and Caufield is curious. The two old men seem to be behind the young fast guy a lot. Just an observation. Easily the slowest player on the team. Led the forwards in giveaways and didn’t threaten offensively whatsoever. The team has bent over backwards to accommodate him and he hasn’t delivered. Maybe stop doing that? Looks exhausted.
Corey Perry – 5/10
His line lacks any real chemistry. Spent too much time chasing down pucks in the neutral zone instead of working down low in the offensive zone. Gets away with so much. Beaten up the ice by Draisaitl and his backcheck poked the puck to Nugent-Hopkins for his goal. Looks tired.
Cole Caufield – 6/10
Speed stood out in a big way next to the two lumbering dinosaurs he was playing with. Should retire because he didn’t score the OT winner. Got into some dangerous positions, especially in tight but couldn’t convert. Can’t understand his positioning on the power play. Whiffed on one great chance in his office at even strength. Looks young.
Jesperi Kotkaniemi – 4/10
You hate to see what’s happening to him right now. Hopefully playoff Kotkaniemi is around the corner. Wayward passing, looked nervous and unsure with the puck on his stick. Didn’t play with enough speed and failed to control the puck several times when it was on his stick. Poor defensive positioning. Needs to rebound quickly.
Josh Anderson – 6/10
Next to Tatar and Kotkaniemi he really struggled, as did the entire line. Moved up next to Toffoli and Suzuki and looked better. Would have been perfect timing for him to get back amongst the goals before the playoffs but ran out of room on his breakaway. Accuracy on his shot continues to be an issue. No real notable drives to the net. Did you hold your breath when he limped off the ice? Another to consider potentially sitting on Wednesday.
Tomas Tatar – 4/10
Yikes. Minus three on the night and directly responsible for two goals against isn’t ideal for any forward. McDavd made him look silly, turning him into oblivion off the boards in the build-up to Kahun’s goal. Jumped off the bench in OT and promptly committed an unforced error, turning the puck over for McDavid’s game-winner. Nothing going forward. Not great.
Jake Evans – 9/10
Should have honestly had a first-period hat-trick. Terrific cutback and inch-perfect shot for his goal. Assists on both Lehkonen and Byron’s goals. Loved his poise and passing on Lehkonen’s disallowed goal. His speed was disruptive both offensively and defensively. Works his heart out every shift. Plays with a bit of a chip on his shoulder as well. Only centreman who was better than 50 percent on faceoffs. Just punched his ticket to a regular spot in the lineup to start the playoffs.
Artturi Leknonen – 8/10
Terrific shot for the game-tying and playoff-admitting goal. But a nice tip of the hat to his countryman Koskinen for a horrendous whiff. Good to see him respond after his earlier goal was disallowed after he couldn’t stay onside. Great pass to spring Evans for his goal. One very important block on the penalty kill as well. Just keeps working all the time.
Paul Byron – 8/10
Gave hope to his coach that guys can return from injury and play at a high level right off the bat. Seeing-eye pass found him at the back post for his goal. His speed is a much-needed shot in the arm for the group. Smart pass off the boards for his assist on Evans’ goal. Defensively shadowed McDavid for long stretches and had no problem mixing it up with him and the rest of the Oilers.
Dominique Ducharme – 6/10
His team once again didn’t have it and that is obviously a concern. But showed more emotion than normal post-game when discussing his pride in his players and how they handled the difficult circumstances of the past month.
“What we’ve been through is something really special. We’re going to be playing our 25th game in, I think, 43 days. It’s never been done before," he said. "To win in that league, the margin between winning and losing is so thin that you have to be mentally challenging yourself every night and that’s something special too…I know it wasn’t perfect, it wasn’t great to see every night. But the guys never gave up and with the challenges we had, losing guys, we could have been in real trouble, but we stuck with it and got some big wins at big times. I think we deserve to be where we’re at, going into the playoffs and having a chance to compete for the Cup.”