BROSSARD, Que. – Assembling a winner from the many new parts the Montreal Canadiens acquired in the summer is taking time – particularly when it comes to scoring goals.
The Canadiens left on a two-game road trip to Phoenix and Nashville on Wednesday coming off a 1-0 loss at home to the Calgary Flames, which followed a 3-1 loss to the Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday. In the game before that, Glen Metropolit got the only regulation time goal in a 2-1 shootout win in Boston.
In 18 games this season, the 8-10-0 Canadiens have been held to two goals or fewer 11 times, and their inability to put opponents away is part of why only one of their wins has been in regulation time.
“It’s a work in progress,” said right-winger Brian Gionta, one of the 10 players in the lineup against Calgary who were not with the Canadiens last season. “On a new team or one that’s been together a while, you’ll have your ups and downs.
“We have to play more consistently and make sure we’re playing with more confidence and desperation.”
The Canadiens let 11 players go in the off-season – 10 free agents plus the trade of Chris Higgins to the New York Rangers – and brought in seven new ones. Injuries on defence have since prompted them to add journeymen Marc-Andre Bergeron and Jay Leach, while several players have been up and down from AHL Hamilton.
The moves brought them three quality offensive players – Gionta, Scott Gomez and Mike Cammalleri – who form their top line, but what has hurt is that despite the opportunities for quality ice time the moves created, none of their young players has stepped up on attack.
Guillaume Latendresse is only 22 but he is in his fourth NHL season. The big left-winger has only two goals this season.
Fellow youngsters Andrei Kostitsyn, Maxim Lapierre and Max Pacioretty have one each. Matt D’Agostini had only one goal in the 11 games he played before suffering a concussion, while Kyle Chipchura was without a goal in 13 games before he was removed from the lineup three games ago.
The result is that coach Jacques Martin has been unable to find a consistent second scoring line, despite strong play from second-line centre Tomas Plekanec, who shares the lead in team scoring with 14 points with Cammalleri.
In practice on Wednesday, Plekanec was on a line with Kostitsyn and Tom Pyatt, who was called up from Hamilton last week with prospect Ryan White.
The third line with Metropolit between Pacioretty and Travis Moen has been their best in some games.
The other factor is the loss of top defenceman Andrei Markov to a lacerated tendon in a foot in the first game of the season in Toronto. He is to be out of action three or four months.
Without its quarterback, a power play that led the NHL only two seasons ago is stuck at 25th best in the league with a 14.5 per cent success rate.
“It always takes time and its always in progress,” coach Jacques Matin said of his team’s struggles. “At this time last week, I was concerned with our play away from the puck.
“We had given up nine goals in two games. Now it’s the offence. Our play is improving. We’ve just got to find ways to get more pucks in the net.”
A vigorous practice Wednesday at the team’s suburban practice facility focused on the attack and the power play.
And the players say they haven’t yet started the squeezing their sticks too tight, although it looked that way when Gomez had Flames goalie Miikka Kiprusoff beaten on a breakaway in the second period, only to whiff on the shot.
“It’s a fine line – you can’t press too much,” said Gionta, whose seven goals is tied for the team lead with Cammalleri. “You have to relax and work for your chances and be desperate for the puck when it’s there in front of the net.
“You can’t grip the stick any tighter or think about it, you just have to go out and play.”
Metropolit said it is only a slump that the team can work its way out of.
“It’s basically trying to get a couple of power play goals,” he said. “If your special teams are doing the job, you’ll win a lot of games.
“I think it’s going to come. We’re all over the puck. We’re running into hot goalies right now. We’re doing all the little things right, we’re just not putting it in the back of the net. It’s frustrating, but it’s a long year. Guys will get the confidence going and we’ll get a couple – hopefully in the next couple of days.”
Notes: The Canadiens are 0-6-0 against Western Conference teams this season … The Flames, whose next game is Friday in Buffalo, held an optional practice at the Canadiens facility. Seven players skated.