BROSSARD, Que. – A string of games against tough opponents await the Montreal Canadiens going into the Olympic break, but they may see that as a good thing.
After all, the two wins the Canadiens got in their last seven games came against strong clubs last weekend – a rare 3-1 victory in New Jersey followed by a 6-0 wipeout of the then-hot New York Rangers.
But instead of building off that on a two-game trip down south this week, they were topped 2-1 in Florida and blanked 3-0 by Tampa Bay with listless efforts on successive nights.
“We play good against so-called good teams – we beat Washington in Washington, we went into Jersey and beat them,” centre Glen Metropolit said on Friday. “What it is is that we’re a good team when we’re playing our game.
“We’ve shown that. Now we’ve got to keep it going.”
It starts in Ottawa on Saturday afternoon (CBC, 2 p.m. ET) when they face the NHL’s hottest club. The Senators have won eight games in a row – nearly all against strong clubs, including a 4-1 victory in Pittsburgh on Thursday night.
Montreal will be without defenceman Jaroslav Spacek for a second game with an upper-body injury. With Paul Mara also out with an upper-body injury, the Canadiens recalled rearguard Yannick Weber from AHL Hamilton.
Before the break the Canadiens will also play Boston and Philadelphia twice each, along with Vancouver, Pittsburgh and Washington. All except Boston, who are one point behind but have four games in hand, are currently ahead of Montreal in the standings.
The Senators, badly missing stars Daniel Alfredsson and Jason Spezza, had lost five in a row and were outscored 22-5 from Jan. 5 to Jan. 12. They turned it around with a 2-0 victory over the Rangers and, with Alfredsson back, followed with a 4-2 win in Montreal on Jan. 16.
In their eight wins, they have outscored opponents 27-8.
The Canadiens meanwhile, keep losing to the teams closest to them in the standings, allowing Florida to tie them in points and the Lightning to move only one point back.
In a conference where only two points separated the sixth from the 13th team as of Thursday, they are frustrating defeats.
And now the games get even tougher.
“You’ve got to respect the fact that (the Senators) are playing their best hockey,” said Montreal winger Michael Cammalleri. “They’re on a streak and they just won a big game in Pittsburgh.
“We’re all aware of that. It’s hard to think ahead when you’ve got a game like that – a nice matinee in Ottawa.”
What causes the Canadiens to play energetic, committed hockey against strong teams only to let down against the others is a mystery even to the players.
“We seem to get away from our game plan too easily,” said Metropolit. “When we’re playing well, we’re getting the puck in deep, we get control, we’re working the puck, we’re skating.
“And then it seems we try to get too cute and it always backfires on us.”
Defenceman Josh Gorges said the Canadiens may have started thinking they were too good after their one-sided win over New York.
“When you get big wins like that, you can get ahead of yourself,” he said. “You think you can just show up and play.
“That’s not the case. Hopefully we’ve learned our lesson and it doesn’t happen again.”
Martin, a former Senators’ coach, said a key for Ottawa of late is that all four of its lines are producing, which cannot be said for Montreal.
On the Canadiens third line, Metropolit has no goals and two assists in his last 16 games, Travis Moen has one goal and one assist in his last 29, and Maxim Lapierre has only one goal in his last 25 games.
“Your role as a third line is to create some energy and make sure you’re good defensively,” said Metropolit. “If you score a goal it’s a bonus, but obviously we haven’t had any bonus goals for a while.”
He said it hasn’t helped that the third and fourth lines have rarely stayed together for more than a game or two, partly due to injuries and players being sent down or called up from Hamilton, and partly because Martin tends to mix up his combinations frequently.
Gorges still has a bright red mark on his neck where he was accidentally cut by Gregory Campbell’s skate late in the game in Florida on Tuesday night. A little deeper or a tad to the right or left and it could have been a rush to the hospital. Instead, he got four stitches after the game and feels fine.
“I didn’t even want to ask how close it was to being something bad,” he said. “I was just glad nothing serious came from it. I got lucky, so I’m not asking questions.”