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Canadiens look for fresh start against Florida to end seven-week slide

Their practice was quick and crisp and many players stayed on the Bell Centre ice well after the formal session was over. Sergei Samsonov, who was in the doghouse last week, was all smiles as he was mobbed by teammates after beating Cristobal Huet twice in a shootout contest.

The 8-14-1 slide that began Dec. 23 and which has made a once-secure NHL playoff position suddenly look shaky seemed the last thing on their minds. They have slipped from fourth to seventh place, one point ahead of Carolina.

"We're starting again," said defenceman Sheldon Souray. "We have to approach the game like it's fun again."

It won't be easy. The Canadiens play host Tuesday night to the Florida Panthers, against whom they have two losses and an overtime win this season.

Then there's a game Wednesday night in New Jersey against the Devils, who are 3-0 (one win in overtime) against Montreal. That's followed by the Stanley Cup champion Hurricanes at home on Saturday night.

But the Canadiens feel they may be ready to turn things around.

After a 5-3 loss to Ottawa on Saturday, their third loss in a row and their fourth in five games, they held a players-only meeting to air their opinions on what has gone wrong.

On Sunday, they were met with unconditional love by 20,000 screaming children at their annual open practice.

"We look at the standings and we have visual proof that there's something wrong," Souray added. "But we cleared the air the other day and (Sunday), a lot of people came out and showed us they still like us.

"Even if we don't win, if we play really, really well, we'll take that as a good start."

The only puzzle Monday was that the underperforming Alex Kovalev, who was benched due to a defensive gaffe for most of the third period Saturday, went to hospital after a light practice for tests on an "upper body" injury.

But coach Guy Carbonneau said Kovalev would be in the lineup.

Defenceman Craig Rivet, who is battling pneumonia, will have tests Tuesday to see if he can resume skating. His earliest return would be Wednesday.

The players' meeting raised questions about team chemistry, which all agreed was so good when the team was winning in the first three months of the season.

Since then, the goaltending has been inconsistent, the penalty killing has suffered and the top forwards are struggling to score.

It is a situation ripe for finger-pointing.

"The approach everyone has to take is: don't worry about other guys picking up their play, just worry about yourself," said winger Chris Higgins, now in a 12-game goal drought. "It sounds selfish, but that's the only way to help the team - have your best game.

"I think guys were worrying too much that if our goalie has a bad game well, we'll lose because of that. But maybe you didn't do something that could have helped in that game, too. You have to be critical of yourself."

Said captain Saku Koivu: "The chemistry's still good, there are no problems off the ice."

On the ice, there have been plenty - defensive mistakes, missed assignments, missed opportunities on attack.

Carbonneau talked of simplifying their play, sticking rigidly to the game plan and keeping up the work rate to get out of the slump.

He also called the players meeting "a huge step to try to turn things around with our team.

"In the last few weeks. we saw players who looked stressed. You saw them in the hallways and they weren't smiling. But we saw a difference since Saturday."

Montreal's power play is second best in the league with a 22.1 per cent success rate but they need more even-strength goals.

Le Journal de Montreal published a shocking list Monday of the combined plus-minus totals of the top four scorers on each of the 30 NHL clubs.

Montreal's Souray, Koivu, Kovalev and Michael Ryder together are minus-57, worst in the league behind Boston's minus-50. Detroit's four best scorers are plus-88, Buffalo's plus-67 and Anaheim's plus-63.

(Calgary is fourth at plus-63, Ottawa sixth at plus-49, Toronto 14th at plus-9, Vancouver 19th at plus-1 and Edmonton 21st at minus-3).


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