Jack Todd: Canadiens' bumpy western road trip has a silver lining

With four straight losses and a very difficult schedule remaining, Montreal is once again in position to get a high first-round draft pick.

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The Canadiens might have been forgiven a rather tatty start to this road trip. After all, it began with the announcement that coach and prime motivator Martin St. Louis was taking an indefinite leave of absence to deal with a family issue.

When the trip opened in Calgary with an uninspired loss to a mediocre Flames team under interim coach Trevor Letowski, it seemed likely the western tour would be pretty grim and it has been, with the Canadiens picking up a single point in the first three games following Thursday night’s 4-1 loss to the powerful Vancouver Canucks.

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In Edmonton, they fell behind 2-0 and fought back to tie it, only to lose in overtime on the kind of play that has been driving fans mad all season. What should have been an interference call on Edmonton became instead a high-sticking double minor to Armia, who lost control of his stick as he was spun around by the collision.

Another of those dumb NHL rules, maybe, but you can’t give Leon Draisaitl and Connor McDavid that kind of advantage, especially not 4-on-3.

The Canadiens didn’t embarrass themselves against the powerful Canucks. Once again, they showed up and battled hard, but had to accept yet another loss in good grace and count the positives.

This time, it came against Vancouver’s Casey DeSmith, who has filled in admirably in the absence of the injured Thatcher Demko. What would you call DeSmith? A transitional Canadien?

DeSmith, the goaltender acquired from Pittsburgh in a three-way deal last August and dealt to Vancouver for Tanner Pearson and a 2025 third-round pick in September without playing a game, did all he had to do against the Canadiens Thursday night, but you aren’t going to win very often getting 17 shots on goal against a team like the Canucks — and whoever made DeSmith the game’s third star was being generous.

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With little in the way of sustained offence, the Canadiens didn’t break through against DeSmith until a fluttering puck off the stick of Cole Caufield was deflected by Juraj Slafkovsky in front.

Slafkovsky’s 15th of the season made it 3-1 and brought his personal scoring streak to six games. It’s something to build on, but when the highlights of your night are one goal and the time Caufield sent the Canucks Elias Petterssen flying with a big hit, it’s not going to be enough.

Nils Aman’s third-period goal put the game effectively out of reach as Vancouver put on display of shutdown hockey that bodes well for their fate come the postseason.

There will be no post-season for the Canadiens. There have been too many games like the struggle against the Canucks. Too many little things going wrong, too many mistakes, like having two players jump on the ice to replace one while killing a penalty.

The Habs survived being two men short for more than a minute, only to surrender the game’s first goal when David Savard was unable to clear the Canucks’ Sam Lafferty from the crease, allowing hulking Vancouver defenceman Nikita Zadorov to score from long range on a screened Samuel Montembeault.

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A missed call on an accidental elbow from Teddy Blueger that caught Kaiden Guhle in the chops helped the Canucks double their lead. The officials conferred but apparently no one saw it.

A few ticks later, former Hab Noah Juulsen tangled skates with Brendan Gallagher near the Canadiens bench. Gallagher left the ice in some difficulty and the Canucks made it 2-0 on another goal from Zadorov with 27 seconds left in the period.

So it goes. The Canadiens have the Kraken up next and a chance to improve on their miserable 4-8-1 record against the Pacific Division. Then it’s the Avalanche in Denver and a murderer’s row of a homestand against the Flyers, Hurricanes, Panthers, Lightning and Leafs.

Poking the bear: The Canucks’ Conor Garland is either brave or stupid, take your pick. During a scrum behind the net, Garland (all 5-foot-10 and 165 pounds of him) decided it would be a good idea to throw some gloved punches at Arber Xhekaj.

Xhekaj passed but (predictably) drew a two-minute penalty anyway.

Tankathon time: The Canadiens aren’t tanking at all — but after four straight losses and with 13 games to play, they’re once again in position to get a high first-round draft pick. With 62 points in 69 games, the Canadiens aren’t going to “catch” the lowly San Jose Sharks, Anaheim Ducks or Chicago Blackhawks at the bottom of the standings.

There is a chance that they might be caught by the Arizona Coyotes (a point back after the same number of games) the Senators (two points down with a game in hand) or even the Columbus Blue Jackets (four points back after the same number of games.)

That would leave Montreal somewhere between fourth and seventh if you invert the standings from the bottom up, with somewhere between a 6.5 per cent chance and a 9.5 per cent chance of snagging the top pick (according to Tankathon) and a crack at Macklin Celebrini and a somewhat better shot at big Cayden Lindstrom out of Medicine Hat.

Unlikely? Yes. Impossible? No.

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