So even though the Montreal Canadiens are 3-1-1 in their last five games and tied with Ottawa for fourth place in the NHL Eastern Conference, the club has a lengthy list of slumping forwards.
Chris Higgins is without a goal in seven games, Michael Ryder has one in his last eight and rookie Guillaume Latendrese has one in nine games.
The top forwards, those assigned to scoring lines, are not producing many goals these days, especially at even strength.
So it is good for them that the defence, the checkers and centre Tomas Plekanec are hot.
“It’s good and bad,” coach Guy Carbonneau said Friday. “It’s good to know that we have more than one line – that everyone can contribute.
“But it hasn’t just been one or two games, it’s been a long time now and we’re still looking for a solution. In the next couple of months, we’ll need everybody, especially Saku’s line.”
The Canadiens, who have lived off goaltending and special teams this season, hope to get their top forwards going in a pair of afternoon games this weekend – Saturday against the New York Islanders and Sunday against the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Defenceman Sheldon Souray leads the club in goals with 17, power play goals with 14 and shots with 146, while also leading in penalty minutes with 105.
The Koivu line with Higgins and Ryder, Montreal’s best trio through the first half of the season, has been in a lethargy since Christmas.
But Plekanec, the unheralded centre on the second line with Kovalev and Latendresse, has seven goals and five assists in his last 13 games.
He had only three goals and nine assists up to Dec. 31, but was named the team’s player of the month for January.
However, the 24-year-old has not found a secret he can pass on to his teammates.
“That’s hockey – you have ups and downs,” said Plekanec. “I was down at the beginning of the year and I wasn’t lucky scoring goals, but now I’m lucky and the other guys aren’t.
“It’s just good bounces. playing hard and going to the net. Sometimes the puck is there for you and you put it in.”
He started the season with Kovalev and Samsonov as linemates, but it didn’t click. After much juggling, Carbonneau dropped Samsonov to the checking line with Mike Johnson and Radek Bonk, which at least got Plekanec going.
It helped that Kovalev has played with more energy of late, although he hasn’t been finding the net.
And the pressure is on Plekanec.
A consensus remains among fans and the media that the Canadiens’ chief shortcoming is at centre on the second line – Plekanec’s spot.
There are calls for a trade to bring in a veteran scorer. Philadelphia’s Peter Forsberg is mentioned a lot, although that would take some salary cap maneuvering.
For now, Carbonneau is happy that his team is battling harder after a tepid January in which it went 6-7. The club posted winning records the three previous months.
The Canadiens are coming off an emotional 5-4 shootout loss in Pittsburgh on Thursday night, a wild end-to-end affair with a nasty edge from rookie Maxim Lapierre’s butt-end on Sidney Crosby to Colby Armstrong’s run at Koivu and resulting battering from Sheldon Souray.
The danger now is of looking past the Islanders to the rematch with Pittsburgh on Sunday.
“You can’t dwell too much on what happened,” said defenceman Mike Komisarek. “I know Crosby generates a lot of interest when he comes to town and rightfully so, but if we’re too worried about Sunday, we’re not going to have success on Saturday.
“In practice, everything’s we’re doing is geared to the Islanders.”
The Canadiens skated for only a half hour Friday, looking to save energy in the midst of four games in six days. Carbonneau gave Koivu and Souray the day off, although they are not reported injured.
Cristobal Huet will be back in goal against New York after ceding the net to David Aebischer for two games.
Last season, Huet posted a pair of shutouts on Super Bowl weekend and confirmed his spot as the No. 1 goalie over Jose Theodore, who was traded for Aebischer in March.
Huet was not at his best of late, particularly in his last start, a 4-1 loss to Toronto last Saturday.
“You want to take advantage of the rest – it wasn’t really rest – but to work with (goaltending coach) Rolie (Melanson) and correct what you didn’t do well the past few games,” Huet said.
“It was good for me to work on some stuff.”