The Canadiens put up a good fight but, not surprisingly, lost 4-3 in overtime to the Vancouver Canucks Tuesday night at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens struggled to win games with Ilya Kovalchuk, Nate Thompson and Nick Cousins in the lineup, so it wasn’t going to get any easier after those three were dealt away before Monday’s NHL trade deadline and GM Marc Bergevin officially put his focus on the future instead of the present.
The Canadiens jumped out to a 2-0 lead only 7:23 into the game on goals by Paul Byron and Shea Weber and were leading 3-2 when Jordan Weal scored 50 seconds into the third period, but ended up losing when Tyler Toffoli scored for the Canucks 1:35 into OT.
“It was a pretty even game, to be honest,” Brendan Gallagher said in the Canadiens’ locker room after the game. “They had their pushes, we had ours. But when you get up 2-0, we had them on the ropes. Obviously, their coach called a timeout, we knew they were going to respond. That’s where you need to have that killer instinct and that’s one thing we haven’t done well enough this year is when you have teams on the ropes, put them away. Don’t try and hold off their pressure. I think you need to keep going, keep going when you got them on the ropes and get that kill shot and we weren’t able to do that.”
After Tuesday’s morning skate in Brossard, Canadiens coach Claude Julien was asked about moving forward without the players who were traded away.
“We lost some leadership and we lost some veterans and all that stuff,” he said. “But I think as a group we’re still going to go out there and compete hard and you hope that those guys taught some of those younger guys some good lessons and shared some good things with them that they’re going to be able to showcase it from here until the end of the year.
“Every game is about getting ready for the team that we’re playing,” Julien added. “We prepare and try to give the guys as much as we can and we go out there with the intention of winning the hockey game and playing well. We demand a lot of our players and in return you hope that your players demand a lot of themselves and that’s all we can do.”
The Canadiens have a 29-27-9 record and things aren’t going to get any easier over the last 17 games of the season. They are now another step closer to missing the playoffs for the third straight season and the fourth time in five years.
“Replacing those guys is hard, obviously,” Paul Byron said after the game about losing veterans Kovalchuk and Thompson. “Kovy’s a great player, offensive player, brought really good things to our team, our dressing room. A guy like Nate, too. A really good, calm presence in moments of the game, penalty-kill. I can’t talk about how important he was for our team.”
The Canucks went 2-for-2 on the power play.
“Our message going forward was those guys are on good teams now and we’re happy for them,” Byron said. “But we have guys now that can get the job done for our team. (Dale Weise’s) got some great experience, (Weal’s) a good player and a guy like Jake Evans can play a big role for our team right now. So the opportunity’s there for someone to seize that opportunity and our team’s going to keep playing hard, keep pushing and we did a pretty good job for most of the game tonight, but just fell short.”
It was predictable.
Home not so sweet
When Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin met with the media in Brossard Monday he said the biggest disappointment this season has been the team’s home record, which is now 13-15-6.
When asked how the Canadiens could fix their problems on home ice, Bergevin said: “At the end of the day we’re all responsible, I get it. But the players at the end of the day have to figure it out. With the coaching staff it’s been addressed. So at some point the players have to take responsibility. Why are we so inconsistent, especially at home? It’s the same team. I wish I had the perfect answer for you because I don’t have it.”
The same question was posed to Canadiens defenceman Ben Chiarot after Tuesday’s optional morning skate.
“I don’t know,” said Chiarot, who spent five seasons with the Winnipeg Jets before signing with the Canadiens as a free agent last summer. “I can’t really explain it. I know as a visiting player teams were excited to come in and play here. That could be the biggest thing is that other teams are ready to come in and it’s an exciting place to play.”
Official attendance Tuesday night was 21,187, marking the 16th time in 34 home games this season that the Canadiens haven’t sold out the Bell Centre, which has a capacity of 21,302.
Evans takes Thompson’s spot
Evans, who was called up from the AHL’s Laval Rocket on Monday, was the Canadiens’ fourth-line centre against the Canucks, filling the spot vacated by Thompson
Thompson had some high praise for Evans when he met with the media in Brossard Monday after his trade was announced.
“I had a good first impression of him at training camp,” Thompson said. “I told the guys on the team I thought this guy is going to be a really good player. You could see it then. I think he should be up here in my opinion. It was fun playing with him and I think he’s going to be a heckuva player. I wouldn’t even limit him to a fourth-line centre. He could be higher than that just from what I’ve seen. But I’m not a general manager … maybe one day. But that’s what I see.”
Evans was asked after Tuesday’s morning skate if he had heard Thompson’s comments.
“I did,” the 23-year-old said. “It was cool. You don’t go up to him and ask him: ‘What to you think of me?’ So when you hear him talk about you like that it’s a cool thing to hear.”
While with the Rocket, Evans said he would watch the Canadiens play on TV and focus on Thompson.
“I would watch and look up to and, I guess, compare myself to him with where I could improve,” Evans said. “He’s definitely one of those guys that influenced me a lot to be the kind of player I am now. Watching him here has been just an amazing time. He’s just such a pro and he’s such a strong player. He makes little to no mistakes in every game and he plays such a hard game. He’s someone you can definitely look up to.”
During his first stint with the Canadiens this season, Evans said Thompson would work with him on faceoffs during practice.
“That was big for me because I was getting cleaned out by him,” Evans said. “So it was nice of him to help me. When he gets in the circle he’s a scary guy.”
When Julien was asked Tuesday morning if Evans is the guy to replace Thompson in the fourth-line centre role moving forward, the coach said: “I think that’s what we’re going to see, right? We don’t always have the answers. We suspect things, we envision things, and now it’s up to the player to go out there and show that he can.”
Evans logged 9:59 of ice time against the Canucks while playing between Artturi Lehkonen and Weise, going 2-for-5 in the faceoff circle (40 per cent).
The Canadiens selected Evans in the seventh round (207th overall) of the 2014 NHL Draft.
KK Bobblehead Night
Tuesday was Jesperi Kotkaniemi Bobblehead Night at the Bell Centre, but the featured player wasn’t there.
While Evans got called up by the Canadiens, Kotkaniemi remains with the Rocket, along with Ryan Poehling. Kotkaniemi, 19, was the third overall pick at the 2018 NHL Draft and Poehling, 21, was the 25th overall pick in 2017.
“I’m not closing the door for Ryan or KK being here, just so you know,” Canadiens GM Marc Bergevin said Monday. “So I’m not closing the door on that. Jake is also a second-year pro compared to Ryan, so that’s one reason. I’m not going to say Ryan took a step backwards because he played one (NHL) game last year, 10 minutes, scored three goals. We all knew it’s not going to be reality. So I can’t say that for Ryan.
“As far (as) KK, yes,” Bergevin added about the teenager taking a step back. “You know what? He had a really good start last year the first half and then for you could say fatigue, you could say strength, his game has dropped off and he had an average (training) camp. He was hurt a few times and it seems like it caught up with him. But right now he’s playing very well in Laval and I think it’s going to be good for him long term.”
Kotkaniemi has 0-10-10 totals in 10 games with the Rocket and is minus-2, while Poehling has 5-7-12 totals in 33 games and is minus-3.
Keep the Rolex
Defenceman Brett Kulak has kept No. 77 and also gets to keep the Rolex watch Kovalchuk gave him as a gift for giving up No. 17 after the Russian winger signed with the Cananadiens as a free agent on Jan. 3.
The Canadiens traded Kovalchuk to the Washington Capitals on Sunday in exchange for a third-round pick. Nobody was wearing No. 17 with the Capitals, so Kovalchuk didn’t have to buy another Rolex.
“I’m not going to take it back,” Kovalchuk said Monday about the watch he gave Kulak. “It’s all his … I hope it’s a good memory and it was one of the situations we went through and I think it’s going to be remembered for a long time.”
Kovalchuk, Thompson make debuts
Kovalchuk played his first game with the Capitals Tuesday night when they beat the Winnipeg Jets 4-3 in a shootout in Washington.
Kovalchuk was pointless and minus-2 with three shots on goal while logging 14:39 of ice time on the third line with Lars Eller and Carl Hagelin.
Thompson made his debut with the Philadelphia Flyers Tuesday night when they beat the San Jose Sharks 4-2 in Philadelphia. Thompson was pointless in 12:39 of ice time and won 40 per cent of his faceoffs while playing on the fourth line between Michael Raffl and Nicolas Aubé-Kubel.
The Canadiens received a fifth-round pick at the 2021 NHL Draft in exchange for Thompson.
Benn a healthy scratch
Former Canadiens defenceman Jordie Benn was a healthy scratch for the second straight game with the Canucks Tuesday night.
Benn has only played in six of the last 25 games after signing a two-year, US$4-million contract with the Canucks last summer as a free agent.
In 43 games, the 32-year-old Benn has 1-6-7 totals and is minus-6 while averaging 16:20 of ice time.
How the Habs were built
Here’s a look at how the current Canadiens roster was built:
Drafted players (5): Jake Evans, Brendan Gallagher, Artturi Lehkonen, Victor Mete, Carey Price.
Free-agent signings (4): Karl Alzner, Ben Chiarot, Charlie Lindgren, Xavier Ouellet.
Trades (12): Joel Armia, Phillip Danault, Max Domi, Jonathan Drouin, Christian Folin, Brett Kulak, Jeff Petry, Nick Suzuki, Tomas Tatar, Jordan Weal, Shea Weber, Dale Weise.
Waivers (1): Paul Byron.
The Canadiens will practise at 11:30 a.m. Wednesday in Brossard before facing the New York Rangers Thursday night at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., TSN2, RDS, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM). There is another practice scheduled for 11 a.m. Friday in Brossard before the Canadiens face the Carolina Hurricanes Saturday night at the Bell Centre (7 p.m., SNE, CITY, TVA Sports, TSN 690 Radio, 98.5 FM).