BROSSARD, Que. – A pair of losses to close rivals over the weekend left the Montreal Canadiens feeling down, but by no means out, of the NHL’s Eastern Conference playoff picture.
After blowing leads in a 4-2 loss at home to the Ottawa Senators on Saturday and a 6-2 defeat to the Rangers in New York on Sunday, the Canadiens dropped from a top-eight playoff position to 10th as both teams leapfrogged them in standings.
After 50 games, Montreal has 50 points. If in a normal season it takes at least 92 points to make the playoffs, the Canadiens would need 42 points in their remaining 32 games to reach that goal.
But they may not need that many points in the weaker Eastern Conference this season. With six points separating the fifth and 13th teams, making the playoffs is hardly out of reach, an optimistic Brian Gionta said Tuesday.
“We’re right in it,” he said. “All these teams are so tight, we’re only four points out of fifth. That’s just a couple of games. It’s easily do-able.”
That may be so, but the Canadiens have played more games than most of their rivals and could be even further back when games in hand are made up.
The Canadiens will try to get back on track at home Wednesday night against the St. Louis Blues, whose four-game winning streak ended with a 4-2 loss Monday night in Columbus. After Montreal, the Blues will play their third road game in four nights Thursday in Ottawa.
Montreal’s weekend losses called for some kind of move and general manager Bob Gainey’s was to call up 33-year-old journeyman Mathieu Darche from Hamilton of the American Hockey League. Darche has eight goals and 24 assists in 101 career NHL games. He played 73 games with in his last stint in the league with Tampa Bay 2007-08.
Darche will likely take the spot of either Matt D’Agostini, who has gone 18 games without a point, or youngster Max Pacioretty, who has three assists in his last 20 games and hasn’t scored since Nov. 25.
D’Agostini has been playing on a top line with Tomas Plekanec and Mike Cammalleri, while Pacioretty skated Tuesday in practice with Maxim Lapierre and Travis Moen.
Former third-line centre Glen Metropolit, who had a strong first half of the season but has only two assists in his last 11 games, was on the fourth trio with Georges Laraque and Marc-Andre Bergeron.
Coach Jacques Martin is waiting to get the gifted Sergei Kostitsyn back from an ankle injury, but while the younger of the Kostitsyn brothers skated on his own before practice, he won’t be ready until some time after the weekend. First-line winger Andrei Kostitsyn is out for an extended period after knee surgery.
Defenceman Ryan O’Byrne, who was scratched for three games after missing four to be with an ailing family member back home in Victoria, B.C., may also return to the lineup Wednesday.
The Canadiens were rocked by injuries early but that only partly explained their mediocre first half.
The team’s shortcomings were underlined by the losses to Ottawa and the Rangers and Martin believes some of those were between the ears.
“One is losing some composure and poise and being able to sustain what you do well,” he said. “We had good starts in both games and didn’t execute.
“We gave up short-handed goals in the last two games and allowed the opposition to turn things around.”
The Rangers took the body to some of Montreal’s better players, like Plekanec and No. 1 defenceman Andrei Markov, and it seemed to work, even though defenceman Josh Gorges and forward Benoit Pouliot both responded by dropping the gloves.
It irked enforcer Laraque to watch the fisticuffs from the bench.
“It’s always frustrating when I sit on the bench and I see our team getting hit and I play four shifts in a four-point game that’s really physical and they’re playing four lines and we’re playing with three,” said an irritated Laraque.
“But I have to respect the coaches decision. On the bench, there’s nothing I can do but support my teammates and hope maybe to get a better chance in another game.”
Pouliot acquitted himself well in his bout with Wade Redden. It was the first fight in the Alfred, Ont., native’s 76-game NHL career.
“I’m not going to do that every time, but it was a good experience,” said Pouliot, who has six goals in 12 games since joining the Canadiens in a trade form the Minnesota Wild. “I did all right. I came out of it the same as I went into it. The knuckle’s a bit sore, but the rest is fine.”