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Canadiens’ progress halted with bad habits re-emerging in loss to Wild

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Before the Montreal Canadiens allowed at least five goals in a game for the 15th time through exactly half a season, their coach talked about how they were finally trending in the right direction.

“We’ve been playing better and better on the trip, having guys coming back into the lineup (from injuries and COVID-19) and refreshed, playing with energy,” Dominique Ducharme said about the more recent part of this 10-game stint away from the Bell Centre, which the Canadiens finished 1-5-4. “I think you can see our game growing.”

We could see that of late. Even with an average of 50 shots allowed through the three games prior to landing in the State of Hockey, it was evident the Canadiens competed very hard and did a lot of good things in a 5-3 win over the Dallas Stars and in consecutive 3-2 overtime losses to the Vegas Golden Knights and Colorado Avalanche.

When Mike Hoffman scored on Montreal’s first shot of Monday’s game, it appeared as though the Canadiens were going to make this a very difficult night for a Minnesota Wild team that had won five of its last six, 13 of its last 19 and all but four of 17 home games all season. For a minute it really looked like they might head back home riding some positive momentum.

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That feeling lasted for less than two more minutes, with Jared Spurgeon tying the game after the Canadiens chased their tails in their own zone on consecutive shifts. And what followed in this 8-2 win for the Wild served up just more evidence of how far the Canadiens have to go.

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Marcus Foligno scored on Minnesota’s 13th shot of the first period to make it 2-1 in the 10th minute. The Wild had already accumulated 20 shots before 15 minutes of the game had elapsed, and you could feel the goals were coming.

Every bad habit that landed the Canadiens in last place in the NHL came out from there. They were completely discombobulated in their own end, they gave the Wild a free pass through the neutral zone, they had limited backpressure, they backed off their own blueline even in one-on-two and two-on-two situations, they gave up multiple odd-man rushes and breakaways, they took terrible penalties and they left both their goaltenders little to no chance to make a difference.

Cayden Primeau could’ve done better on two of the three goals he allowed in the second period, but he came up with several big saves throughout his 40 minutes in the game. In the third period, rookie Michael McNiven took over.

The first shot he faced in the NHL was a breakaway chance for superstar Kirill Kaprizov, and he somehow got his glove on it. McNiven, unfortunately, couldn’t get anything on the four goals that beat him on six Wild shots that followed.

It wasn’t exactly the debut he had always dreamed of, and this wasn’t close to how the Canadiens hoped to finish this road trip.

It was an enormous step backwards.

“We came out the way we wanted to. I thought we had a good start for the first four, five minutes there, and then things just got out of hand,” said Josh Anderson. “I found they were doing circles around us in the zone and it kind of looked like shinny hockey there for most of the game.

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“But that’s on us as players. We’ve gotta compete, we’ve gotta be physical, win 50-50 puck battles. We just got beat all over the ice tonight.”

He called it a game the Canadiens should throw out the window. Ducharme referred to it as one they should put in the garbage.

Granted, fatigue was understandably a factor, but this game was like many others this team has played this season. And it’s not one management should forget.

It’s vice-president of hockey operations Jeff Gorton and general manager Kent Hughes who will have to evaluate what to do next with this team. They have to be able to see this performance as part of a larger pattern, and not a one-off the coach and his players would like for it to be in order to get themselves focused on the next one. They have to know there’s only so much positive to take out of better efforts against Dallas, Vegas and Colorado when the one against the Wild looked so much more like the norm we’ve seen from the Canadiens this season.

The details were nowhere to be found, and the effort was subpar.

“I think to be competitive against top teams, we need to be really having everyone at the top of their game to give ourselves a chance,” Ducharme said, “and tonight we didn’t have that. They were much better than us.”

Dvorak knocked out of game by questionable hit

It was on Christian Dvorak’s second shift of the game that he turned in the slot and took Jared Spurgeon’s shoulder right in the head.

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Dvorak left the game and did not return.

“It happened quickly,” said Ducharme. “I’d imagine if there’s something, the league will look at it. He was pulled by the spotter and he didn’t pass his tests. We’ll see what’s up in a few days.”

The NHL department of player safety will review the play, but they’ll have to decide if it meets the criteria for supplemental discipline.

Spurgeon was focused on the puck and made a move to get out of the way of his own player before the collision with Dvorak. But there was no question he made direct contact with Dvorak’s head.

It would be hard to say that was intentional. But if he meant to hit him at all—and some people certainly felt he did—it’s up to him to avoid hitting him in the head.

Anderson felt Spurgeon could’ve avoided it and went after him later in the game before getting into a fight with Ryan Hartman.

“Obviously, I didn’t like the hit,” Anderson said. “I saw it once on the replay, just quickly, but it looked like he clipped him pretty good in the head. Obviously, when you lose a teammate—a pretty important one—for the rest of the game, you gotta let players know. That’s what I tried to do. I just gave him a little whack here or there, and obviously, his teammate stepped up. But trying to show a little bit of emotion.”

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