MONTREAL – Only 10 games remain for the Montreal Canadiens to stop their free fall and avoid the embarrassment of missing the playoffs a year after finishing first in the NHL Eastern Conference.
Not to mention bowing out early in their 100th anniversary season.
But with the way they’ve played since just before the all-star game in Montreal on Jan. 25, it looks as though their faces will be as red as their famous jerseys come April when the post-season begins.
Since Jan 20, when they were still among the top teams in the conference, the Canadiens have gone 9-16-3 and have dropped to the eighth and final playoff position, only one point ahead of ninth-place Florida.
The Panthers can move ahead of them with a win at home Monday night against Carolina.
The Canadiens are not just losing games, they are being beaten by teams that outplay and outshoot them. They labour to clear the puck from their own zone and when they do, their sticks are squeezed so hard that passes go awry and chances are wasted.
That’s what general manager Bob Gainey has been hoping to fix since he fired Guy Carbonneau and took over behind the bench on March 9, although the team is 1-3-2 and without a win in its five games since then.
“Our next goal is to win a game in 60 minutes,” Gainey said after his side was beaten 5-2 by the Toronto Maple Leafs before 21,273 braying fans at the Bell Centre on Saturday night. “We haven’t won a 60-minute game in a long time.
“Our goal is to win a game we deserve to win, not just based on a couple of power-play goals or the goaltender. To play more like what our competition looked like tonight.”
He planned to have chats Sunday with the players who didn’t impress him against Toronto and in other recent games, and that could be a long list.
The team also recalled winger Sergei Kostitsyn, who has been hot after a slow start since he was sent to AHL Hamilton in mid-February. The younger brother of struggling winger Andrei Kostitsyn played well late last season for the Canadiens.
This is a 10-game stretch when the Canadiens were expected to go on a roll, with nine of the games at home and mostly against non-playoff teams like Toronto.
Instead, they have only one overtime win – against Edmonton in the first of them.
Now, there are four games left – Atlanta on Tuesday, Tampa Bay on Thursday and Buffalo on Saturday before the homestand closes March 31 against Chicago.
Gainey said he tried to have his players stay closer together on the ice, to support each other as they move up-ice with quick, short passes.
“But we hurt ourselves with unforced errors,” he said. “A player has control of the puck, we’re ready to move in and then it doesn’t happen.
“It’s like we sabotage the other four guys on the ice because the pass hits a stick or a skate and then we don’t accomplish what we want to on the play.”
The exception of late has been third-line centre Maxim Lapierre, who had both goals and fired seven shots against Toronto. He has three goals in his last three games and, with 14, he has doubled his output from last season.
“Max is an example for our whole team,” added Gainey. “He’s playing with passion, courage and effort.”
Lapierre’s goals, which came after Toronto took a 4-0 lead, briefly lifted the crowd, but the booing didn’t stop after Jason Blake put the Leafs ahead 5-2 with a power-play goal early in the third.
“They have their opinion and obviously, there’s a lot of frustration,” captain Saku Koivu said of the fans. “They have a right to be that way.”
He said the players want to work and want to win, but “putting things up a notch higher and doing the tough things on the ice are what counts.
“It’s time to deliver. Less talk off the ice and more action on it.”
What is confirmed is that Montreal will not repeat as regular season conference champion, with first-place Boston’s 4-1 win over New Jersey on Sunday afternoon making it official.
The Leafs had a well-earned day off Sunday, particularly the line of Alexei Ponikarovsky, Mikhail Grabovski and Nikolai Kulemin. The trio combined for 11 points.
Ponikarovsky had his second four-point game in the last four, Grabovski had a goal and three assists while Kulemin had a goal and two helpers.
Toronto, still eight points out of a playoff spot, plays at home Tuesday against Washington.