BROSSARD, Que. – It is the nervy final weekend of the NHL season, but the Montreal Canadiens are more concerned with fixing what has gone wrong with their game than with the race for playoff positions.
An up-and down season ends Saturday night with a showdown on national television against the rival Toronto Maple Leafs (7 p.m. ET).
It will be the regular season finale for both the 39-33-9 Canadiens and the 29-38-14 Leafs, the last-place team in the Eastern Conference who would like nothing better than to have the chance to “put a little sand in their gears,” as Toronto coach Ron Wilson phrased it.
The Canadiens practised on Friday not knowing where they will stand when the puck drops. Results elsewhere could either have put them in or leave them needing one more point to make the post-season for a third straight year.
Whatever the scenario, the Canadiens want to come away feeling good about themselves.
“Everyone understands the importance of the game,” said defenceman Josh Gorges. “We want to make sure we’re heading into the playoffs on a winning note.”
The Canadiens got themselves into a fairly comfortable spot in sixth place in the East thanks to winning seven of the first eight games after the Olympic break.
Since then, they have gone 3-4-3 and wasted chances to clinch a playoff spot with a shootout loss to the Islanders in New York and a 5-2 defeat to the Hurricanes in Carolina, both non-playoff teams.
They have scored only 20 goals in that 10-game stretch and their hitherto potent power play, although still the league’s second best, has gone a feeble 4-for-35.
They looked nervous and sloppy in both defeats, blowing a one-goal lead late against the Islanders and playing disorganized, turnover-filled hockey against the Hurricanes.
“I don’t have an explanation for why we played the way we did in these last two games,” said Gorges. “It’s unacceptable, the way we played.
“Whatever the circumstances were, we had to make sure we were playing the right style of hockey. That’s the frustrating thing. For whatever reason, we thought we’d change our system and the way we play. We’re at our best when we play with each other and use each other and when we don’t, we have games like that.”
Added forward Brian Gionta: “We’re working hard, but the problem is we’re not working smart. When that happens, it’s deceiving. It makes it look like you’re not trying. The difference is just to be a little smarter. You need to support each other. If a guy has got the puck on the wall and he’s all alone, it’s tough to make plays. He needs support.”
It won’t be easy against the Leafs, who could have helped the Canadiens by beating key rivals this week, but instead lost 2-0 to Philadelphia and 5-1 to the New York Rangers. Before that, they were on a 10-5-3 run.
No one is looking forward to the game more than Leafs goalie Jean-Sebastien Giguere, who will make his first start in his home town since he was acquired from the Anaheim Ducks on Jan. 31. A few weeks back, Wilson altered his goaltending rotation with Jonas Gustavsson so that Giguere could start in Montreal.
“Inadvertently, it got two games for Jonas against (the Rangers’ fellow Swede) Henrik Lundqvist,” said Wilson. “Giggy has been a western conference guy and he hasn’t played much against Montreal. This will be nice for him and his family.”
Giguere, who has only been able to amass six or eight tickets for family thus far, said he appreciated Wilson’s gesture.
“It was unexpected, to be honest,” he said. “I was maybe going to ask him, but I didn’t want to ruffle any feathers.
“But he took it upon himself and told me he was going to do that. I appreciate that. It’s showing a lot of respect for his player.”
The Canadiens announced that Gorges was elected by the local media as winner of the Jacques Beauchamp Trophy as the team’s unsung hero.
That sparked rinkside discussion of the remarkable string of defencemen produced by the Kelowna Rockets of the Western Hockey League. Toronto’s Luke Schenn is also a Rockets alumnus.
Gorges was on a Kelowna team that went to the Memorial Cup in 2003 and won it in 2004. His teammates included two of the NHL’s best current rearguards – Shea Weber of the Nashville Predators and, for half a season, Duncan Keith of the Chicago Blackhawks. Another teammate was Kyle Cumiskey of the Colorado Avalanche.
The Rockets later produced defencemen Alexander Edler of the Vancouver Canucks and rookie of the year candidate Tyler Myers of the Buffalo Sabres.
“One person that has to be recognized is Lorne Frey,” said Gorges. “He’s the head of scouting for the Rockets. He’s been there forever. He’s done a tremendous job of recognizing talent at a young age. I don’t now why there’s so many defencemen, but it’s nice to see a lot of guys I’ve played with be successful.”