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The Canadiens were officially eliminated from playoff contention at 9:52 p.m Friday in heartbreaking fashion.
That’s when the Columbus Blue Jackets completed their 3-2 shootout win over the Rangers in New York to clinch the final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. That means the Canadiens’ final game of the regular season Saturday at the Bell Centre against the Toronto Maple Leafs is meaningless. It will be the last game for the Canadiens and the Leafs already know they will be playing the Boston Bruins in the first round of the playoffs.
This marks the second straight season and the third time in four years that the Canadiens will miss the playoffs and they have now gone 26 years since their last Stanley Cup championship in 1993.
The Canadiens weren’t expected to make the playoffs this season after finishing 28th in the overall NHL standings last year. If they win Saturday night against the Leafs, the Canadiens would finish with 96 points — an impressive 25-point improvement from last season. The 96 points would also tie an NHL record for most points by a team not to make the playoffs. The Florida Panthers finished with 96 points last season, missing out on the final playoff spot by a single point.
The Canadiens had the day off Friday and when Carey Price was asked Thursday night if he’d be watching the Blue Jackets-Rangers game on TV, he smiled and said: “Probably, yeah.”
Price didn’t like what he saw.
The Rangers were leading 1-0 after 40 minutes on a goal by Chris Kreider at 1:47 of the second period. The Rangers were 13-0-4 this season when leading after two periods, but blew the lead this time. Ryan Dzingel scored for Columbus at 2:25 of the third period to tie the score and then Artemi Panarin put the Blue Jackets ahead at the 14:27 mark. Just when all hope looked lost for the Canadiens, Pavel Buchnevich scored for the Rangers with seven seconds left to tie the score 2-2 and send the game to overtime.
There were no goals in OT and Panarin scored the only goal in the shootout to give the Blue Jackets the win and eliminate the Canadiens.
Some Canadiens fans will consider this season a success — I agree — and others who remember the days when the Stanley Cup parade used to take “the usual route” in Montreal will only be satisfied when the team wins that elusive 25th championship. Some will consider anything less than a playoff spot a failure.
I was among those who felt Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin should have been fired after last season’s disaster, but owner/president Geoff Molson decided to give the GM a chance to clean up his own mess and he did a very good job over the last 12 months.
Last summer’s trades that landed Max Domi and Tomas Tatar provided an offensive spark to a team that was both bad and boring last season and helped make the Canadiens fun to watch again. Jesperi Kotkaniemi, selected No. 3 overall at last June’s NHL Draft, became Montreal’s adopted hockey son and the 18-year-old has had an impressive rookie season.
Bergevin’s critics will wonder how good this team might have been if the GM had re-signed unrestricted free-agent Alexander Radulov two summers ago instead of sitting on more than $8 million in salary-cap money each of the last two seasons. The 32-year-old Radulov has 29-41-70 totals in 68 games this season with the Dallas Stars, including 7-14-21 totals on the power play.
The Canadiens’ power play is the biggest reason they won’t be in the playoffs, clicking at 12.9 per cent for the season to rank 30th in the NHL, ahead of only the Nashville Predators at 12.7 per cent. It didn’t help that the Canadiens didn’t have a backup goalie they could count on after Antti Niemi looked terrible in his last two starts, allowing seven goals on 33 shots for a .788 save percentage. Bergevin decided not to get another backup at the NHL trade deadline and as a result Price started the last 13 games and played in 28 of the last 29.
Jonathan Drouin, the Canadiens highest-paid forward at US$5.5 million, gave the team almost nothing offensively down the stretch, going pointless in the last seven games and posting 1-1-2 totals in the last 17. While Drouin is only one point away from matching his career high with 18-34-52 totals, he is pointless in 23 of the last 25 games and also minus-10 over that span.
Price proved he can still be an elite goalie at age 31, while captain Shea Weber, 33, showed he can still be effective at times, but that age and injuries are catching up to him and he isn’t going to get any faster. Bergevin has said he doesn’t believe in windows of opportunity, but the window on his two veteran stars is closing.
With that in mind, Bergevin has to make some moves this summer to make the Canadiens a better team.
Missing the playoffs three years in a row won’t be acceptable.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2019