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Canadiens look to halt late-season slide, clinch playoff spot in final week

BROSSARD, Que. - The season looks to be crashing down on the Montreal Canadiens but the message among the players on Friday was: relax, don't worry.

The Canadiens have lost five of their last seven games, including spankings on the road of 6-3 by the New York Rangers, 7-0 by the Boston Bruins and 6-2 by the Carolina Hurricanes.

They endured their longest goal-less streak in 61 years when they were shut out in three straight games before beating Atlanta 3-1 on Tuesday.

And they even have former Canadien Georges Laraque telling a local radio station this week that coach Jacques Martin has lost control of the dressing room, which the coach dismissed and captain Brian Gionta denied.

But they remain in sixth place in the NHL Eastern Conference and insist they aren't about to panic just yet.

A victory against the Devils in New Jersey on Saturday night would go a long way to calming their nervous fans whose greatest fear is having the season come down to a must-win game in their regular season finale April 9 in Toronto.

"Our attitude is that it's our spot to lose," said goatender Carey Price. "We have a pretty confident group here and we know we can get the job done, so we have to have that mindset in our next game.

"We need a good effort, that's the biggest thing. To make the post-season, we just need a couple of points. We know what we have to do. It's in our hands."

With four games left to play, the Canadiens have a two-point lead on the two clubs in the final post-season spots, Buffalo and the Rangers. They're five points ahead of ninth-place Carolina and seven ahead of hard-charging Toronto, so it would take a total collapse to miss the playoffs.

Montreal plays its final home game Tuesday against Chicago, then ends the season in Ottawa and Toronto.

Last season, the Canadiens needed the point they got from a regular season-ending overtime loss at home to the Leafs to clinch a post-season berth, then knocked off Washington and Pittsburgh en route to the conference final.

The concern is that the team is not playing well and looks to be headed for a quick playoff exit, but rookie defenceman P.K. Subban said it is just winding down before taking another stab at a playoff run.

"It's the time of the season where fatigue starts setting in for a certain players," said Subban, one of the few Canadiens who hasn't looked either banged up or tired of late. "You're mentally tired but then snap, three days go by, the playoffs start and everybody's rejuvenated again.

"It's a weird time. It's kind of a grind. You've got to grind through it. Once you're in the playoffs, it's a different ball game. We have a couple of days left to get the job done and I have no doubt we will."

There has been a noticeable lack of energy in recent games, particularly on the road.

Their home record of 23-11-5 is third best in the conference but their road mark of 18-19-1 is 10th. They have been pounded on the scoreboard and Price has been pulled from three straight road games. Backup Alex Auld was in goal for the exception to the rule, an 8-1 win in Minnesota on March 20.

It won't get easier in New Jersey, where veteran goalie Martin Brodeur is sure to get up for a game against his home town team even if the Devils are all-but eliminated.

"One thing about New Jersey is they're really disciplined, they're not going to cheat," said centre Scott Gomez, a former Devil. "It's a good test."

The Canadiens will be without forward Jeff Halpern, who stayed home with a lower body injury. Martin said his condition was day-to-day. Tom Pyatt took his spot on a line with Lars Eller and Ryan White.

Defenceman Jaroslav Spacek, out 11 games with a knee injury that required surgery, skated with the team but won't play in New Jersey. Martin expects him back sometime next week, possibly Tuesday.

Before practice, forward Max Pacioretty skated for about 20 minutes on his own for the first time since he suffered a severe concussion and a fractured vertebra in his neck on March 8 when his head collided with a stanchion after a check by Boston defenceman Zdeno Chara.

Martin said Pacioretty should be able to practice with the team some time in April, although there was no word on whether he would be able to play if the team is still in the playoffs at that time. The winger had already begun workouts in the gym.

Pacioretty's agent Alex Schall said this week he doesn't expect him to be ready to play until training camp, which Martin called "speculation."

"He's following the protocol," Martin said. "He's in the beginning of the rehabilitation."


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