MONTREAL – The air went out of the Montreal Canadiens after they clinched a playoff spot almost two weeks ago.
Centre Lars Eller hopes they get some energy back as they close the NHL regular season with three games on the road.
“We lost track when we started to take our foot off the gas a bit and started to think it was going to be a bit easier,” Eller said Monday. “We were a top team, but once you take a per cent or two off of your effort, you lose games.
“And because of the system we play, all five men have to work together, and if we don’t do that, we’re going to get exposed and scored on.”
Opponents have been filling the Montreal net since the forwards stopped skating, the defence stopped winning battles and the goaltenders started waving at shots. They have been outscored 25-12 and gone 1-4-0 since wrapping up a playoff spot with a win in Buffalo on April 11.
Goaltender Carey Price, who was lifted twice and let in 19 goals in than span, got most of the blame, but he wasn’t helped by the listless teammates playing in front of him.
The Canadiens (27-12-5) will try to solidify home ice for at least the first round of playoffs and get their game back on track as they play Tuesday night in New Jersey, Thursday night in Winnipeg and end the regular season Saturday night in Toronto.
“Tough stretches happen and ours came at this time,” said Eller. “As long as we’re ready for the playoffs I don’t see a big problem.
“But we’re putting a lot of emphasis on taking it one game at a time this week.”
In a normal week, they would have had Sunday off after their 5-1 loss on home ice to Washington on Saturday, but coach Michel Therrien wanted full practices both Sunday and Monday before the road trip.
As general manager Marc Begevin watched alone from about a dozen rows up in the Bell Centre seats, they worked on defensive and neutral zone play, as well as special teams.
The aim was to get back to being the quick skating and puck-moving team that built a 26-9-5 record through its first 40 games.
The Canadiens have conceded eight power-play goals in the last five games, while scoring on only three of 24 chances with the man advantage.
After juggling lines liberally in the last two weeks, Therrien has gone back to the pre-slump units, which should give them three balanced scoring lines.
Tomas Plekanec has Rene Bourque and Brian Gionta back on his flanks on the first unit, David Desharnais is back with wingers Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher and Eller centres Alex Galchenyuk and Michael Ryder.
The rookie Galchenyuk is perhaps the hottest Canadien of late with six goals and two assists in his last nine games despite limited ice time. Pacioretty, despite sluggish moments, has six points in his last six contests to take over the team lead with 37 points.
Last season, the line of Desharnais, Pacioretty and Erik Cole was by far Montreal’s best, but there hasn’t been quite the same magic this season. Cole was traded to Dallas for Ryder in February with only six points in his first 19 games. Desharnais has scored once in his last 19 games.
“Some of you (reporters) don’t think we work well together but I think we’ve had a good year,” said Pacioretty. “Our minutes are down and we’re helping the team in other ways.
“Our team has a handful of guys who have put up numbers, so it’s not going to be one-sided stats like it was last year. That’s the way everyone wants it. We’re not selfish people. We like it when other guys step up.”
Underperforming Travis Moen is off the fourth line in favour of Colby Armstrong, who was skating with Jeff Halpern and Brandon Prust.
Therrien also elected to change up his defence pairs, which have been reeling since hits leader Alexei Emelin went down with a season-ending knee injury on April 6.
P.K. Subban is now with veteran Francis Bouillon, while Josh Gorges is with recently returned Raphael Diaz and Andrei Markov is with Yannick Weber.
Markov especially has missed his partner Emelin, going minus-8 in seven games without him.
Markov was named on Monday as Montreal’s candidate for the Masterton Trophy for sportsmanship, dedication and perseverance, an award won last season by Pacioretty for his comeback from a career-threatening neck injury.
The 34-year-old blue-liner missed most of the last two seasons having the same knee rebuilt twice.
He has played in all 45 games this season, averaging a team-high 24:18 of ice time per game and putting up nine goals and 18 assists.
His vision and precision passing is intact, but he has slowed considerably from his pre-injury days.
Therrien skated around a question about Markov’s play since the Emelin injury, saying opposing teams have adjusted to him, but his offensive game is still sharp.
“Right now I just want to put (the injuries) behind me and look forward and try to be better and get back to where I was before,” said Markov. “Not every game went the way I want to see, but I tried to play my best and tried to enjoy every game.
“I’m happy I’m healthy now. I still have room to improve and I’m going to work on that in the future.”
Therrien is exasperated at fans and media who have been demanding that Galchenyuk get more ice time. The third overall pick in last June’s draft has nine goals and 15 assists while playing a carefully managed 12:15 per game.
He has looked dazzling at times, but Therrien said playing more would not necessarily mean more goals for the 19-year-old at this point in his development.
“I really like how things are going with Alex,” he said. “We’re happy. We’re satisfied. Everything is going as we planned it.”