More fingers are pointing at the Canadiens today than Andrew Ference sticks up at opposing fans when the Bruins are winning. Everyone's got a pet theory about what happened to completely take the Habs away from their game and fall into the trap of attempting to play someone else's. So, today, there are many explanations for why the small, fast Habs tried to out-hit and out-tough a bigger, stronger team. Everyone's trying to pinpoint the minute the Canadiens rolled over and gave up that pivotal game.
A lot of those pointing fingers and weary explanations are directed at Carey Price. Craig Anderson has been very strong in the Senators' net despite facing more shots than Price. The Canadiens goaltender needs to be at least as good if the Habs are to have a chance in this series. In Game Two, he was spectacular. In Games One and Three, not so much. That's why some deconstructionists are saying the tide turned at 1:18 of the third period, when Price whiffed on a clear shot by Senators rookie Jean-Gabriel Pageau. That gave Ottawa a two-goal lead that must have seemed insurmountable with the way Anderson was playing. It was all downhill from there.
Other Monday morning critics look instead at the first goal of the game, at 5:58 of the first period with the Habs two men down. That, many believe, was emblematic of the indiscipline that marked the beginning of the Canadiens collapse. Certainly, penalties...many of them stupid...played a big part in the result of the game.
Perhaps, though, the real catalyst of the team's melt-down happened before any of that, and was the result of a penalty that wasn't called. Nineteen seconds into the game, the Canadiens P.K.Subban held the puck just behind his own blueline, and was looking for a passing option. The Senators' Erik Condra bore down on Subban, crosschecking him in the head and knocking him to the ice. It was a questionable hit at the very least, but play continued without a whistle. From that moment on, Subban and the Canadiens were thinking more about hitting back and getting even than they were about skating and speed.
The Senators aren't stupid. They know Subban and Brendan Gallagher are the emotional hearts of the Canadiens. Both players were targets last night, but their responses were very different. Gallagher just kept playing his game as hard as he could. Subban fell into the Ottawa trap. While the Senators were penalized twice in the first period for attacking Gallagher, Subban took his first minor of the game at 12:04 of the same frame. He was called twice more in the second, for high-sticking (a bizarre, after-the-fact penalty on the first Pageau goal that should have been a delayed call and thus negated when the puck went in) and for hooking. At 8:31 of the third, he finally lost it and pummelled Senator Kyle Turris. He ended up getting a fighting major, double minor and, almost mercifully, a game misconduct. In between his trips to the box, Subban was visibly frustrated and fell back into old habits of trying to make dramatic stretch passes and end-to-end rushes. While entertaining, the showy Subban is not the most effective Subban. By successfully taking him out of the game, the Senators removed one of the Canadiens' most important weapons and, in doing so, set a tone.
Subban was frustrated and angry, as evidenced by his completely out-of-line public lambasting of teammate Max Pacioretty on the bench, and so his teammates became. When a player is as involved as Subban, it's hard for his emotion to be contained. Michel Therrien, for all his useful passion in the first two games, lost control of the mood on his bench as well. He needed to call his time out and get his players, particularly Subban, back on track before it was too late. He didn't.
Ultimately, the greatest failure lay with the officials in that game. If the correct call had been made on the head shot to Subban on the very first shift, the referees would have sent the message that targeting certain players would not be tolerated. Subban might have felt justice had been served and he might have kept a better leash on his temper. Instead, the play went uncalled and the Habs, Subban first among them, embarked on a doomed mission to find their own vengeance.
Subban is a franchise defenceman. If he's not playing his game, he's not effective and becomes a pawn of the opposition. He's got arguably as big an impact on the team and its fortunes as Price does. How those guys go, so go the Habs. Last night, Price was soft and Subban angry, and that is the identity their team wore. They have to realize the reffing is terrible and rise above it. If they and the Canadiens sink into the mud, they'll soon suffocate. They have a day to recognize the truth of that. In the meantime, they'll find themselves the targets of a lot of fingers.