MONTREAL – Asking the Montreal Canadiens why they play better on the road than at home brings a lot of shrugs and bewildered looks these days.
But they all seem clear that if they could play the simple, focused game that has brought them success on the road, there would be less booing and more singing of “Ole Ole” at the Bell Centre.
The Canadiens have the NHL’s fifth-worst home record, 5-6-3, but they are tied for the second-best road mark, 9-5-1, going into a home game Tuesday night against the Tampa Bay Lightning.
“We have no idea how we can play so good on the road and not at home,” said winger Michael Ryder. “I think that’s why we had that little meeting (on Sunday) – to try to figure it out.”
The Canadiens and their coaches thrashed out a number of issues a day after they were booed off the ice following a 5-1 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes on Saturday night – their fifth straight defeat on home ice (the team record is seven straight home losses).
No issue stands out quite like the way they have been manhandled regularly despite 21,273 adoring fans in the seats at every home game.
Coach Guy Carbonneau suggested that visiting teams get just as excited to play in front of the league’s largest crowd in a city that eats and sleeps hockey.
“But we have to overcome that,” he said. “We have to find a way not to be distracted by that.
“We have to be more strong in our team game; not panic if we don’t score in the first five minutes; stick with the game plan. That’s what we talked about – not to get frustrated. We understand that the fans want a good show, but you can’t win the game in the first five minutes.”
They may not get a better chance to end the skid than against Tampa Bay, who fly in after Monday night’s game against the Toronto Maple Leafs.
The Lightning are even more extreme than Montreal. They went into the Toronto game 2-10-1 on the road, worst in the 30-team league, to go with an 11-3-2 home mark.
Also, the Canadiens were 3-1 against the Bolts last season, including 2-0 in Montreal.
Forward Alex Kovalev said the Canadiens need to keep their ‘away’ mindset when they play at home.
“The guys are more focused and relaxed on the road,” he said. “All we can do is keep pushing and try to memorize what we do on the road – play a complete game and focus for 60 minutes.
“Maybe we should try to remember what we do right on the road and transfer that to the home games. Maybe that would work.”
Also not working is their penalty killing, which has allowed eight goals in the last 20 chances, a feeble 60 per cent kill rate.
“We’re taking more penalties than at the start of the year,” said Carbonneau. “And lately, we have a tough time taking the lead.
“It’s always easier to defend on the penalty kill when you’re ahead than when you’re behind by one or two goals. Sometimes I’ll ask them to force the play because you might catch teams by surprise and score short-handed.
“Sometimes we stay on the ice too long. A lot of the time it’s not getting the puck out of our zone. There have been lots of occasions where we had control of the puck and, for one reason or another, we weren’t able to get it out of the zone and that’s when they come back and score.”
The goaltending has been spotty too, with rookie Carey Price replaced for the first time in the third period against Carolina by Jaroslav Halak.
Veteran Cristobal Huet practised Monday, but isn’t expect back from a pulled groin until Saturday against Toronto, so Price will start a fourth straight game.
And Mathieu Dandenault was moved back to the first line with Saku Koivu and Chris Higgins, where he played (and scored) in a 4-2 win in Boston last week.
Ryder was dropped to the third line with Kyle Chipchura and Guillaume Latendresse.