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Holiday season not promising for road-bound Montreal Canadiens

MONTREAL - When the holiday season comes, the circus pushes the Montreal Canadiens out of the Bell Centre and, more often than not, into the jungle.

As the Canadiens packed their bags and left for Washington to start a string of six straight road games on Wednesday, the Cirque du Soleil was setting up in their home rink for a run of shows.

Christmastime road trips have been the norm for Montreal for decades, and usually, they lose far more often than they win.

Since 1999, their record between Dec. 23 and Dec. 31 is 3-18-5, with five of the losses in overtime or via a shootout.

Their last successful holiday trip was 1998, when they were 3-1-0.

It's enough to make coach Guy Carbonneau say humbug.

"I look at history once in a while, but I'm more interested in creating history," Carbonneau said. "I like to look forward, not back.

"I know in the past this team hasn't had success on the Christmas trip, but I'm trying to change that."

After playing in Washington on Thursday night, the Canadiens play Saturday night in Carolina and Sunday night in Dallas - a fateful Dec. 23.

They will fly home after the game, landing at about 4 a.m. ET, then set off again at midday on Dec. 26 for Tampa, where they play the Lightning the following night. The trip concludes with games Dec. 28 in Florida and Dec. 30 against the Rangers in New York.

"lt will be a tough trip but it will be cut in half," said Carbonneau.

He also takes heart in his team's 10-5-1 road record this season.

But Dec. 23 has been cruel to Montreal, which has not won on that date on the road since a victory in Boston in 1945. Since then, their record is 0-9-8.

Last season, the Canadiens were challenging the NHL Eastern Conference leaders until their 4-2 loss on Dec. 23 in Boston. That started a 1-3-0 road trip and a downward spiral that saw them miss the playoffs.

In 2005-06, it was a 4-2 loss in Washington on Dec. 23 that began a 1-4-0 road trip.

But this Dec. 23 has been circled for months on Carbonneau's calendar.

He finished his playing career with Dallas and his daughter is married to Stars winger Brendan Morrow. Carbonneau will stay on to spend Christmas with his family there and rejoin his team in Tampa.

However, he is concerned at what the hectic travel schedule may do to his team and doesn't like having a Dec. 23 game scheduled so far away that the travel time will cut into the players' two-day Christmas break.

"I really feel great because we're going to Dallas," he said. "For me, it's a special place and I'll get a chance to see my family.

"But I just don't understand that trip we have to do to Dallas on the 23rd, which is three and half or four hours away. It makes no sense to me."

The Canadiens wanted to turn it into an occasion by flying the players' families to Tampa to spend Christmas in the sunshine, but a provision in the collective bargaining agreement prevents teams from paying for more than one trip per season for one relative per player.

The league does not want teams skirting the salary cap by offering non-monetary perks to players. The Canadiens felt they should be made an exception in this case, but the league said no.

"That's a decision I don't understand from the NHL," said Carbonneau. "They're the ones that created that little mess.

"I understand the reasons why they don't want to do it, but on the other side, they should have been a little lenient and tried to help us on our trip, too."

Defenceman Francis Bouillon had hoped to spend the break in Tampa with his wife and two young children.

"It would be fun and different to spend it on the road, even though it would be without my mum and dad," he said. "It's something we may never get another chance to do.

"We're used to spending Christmas in the snow and cold. To do it in the sun and go to the pool during the day and give the gifts at night would be something new."

Some players plan to spend Christmas in Tampa on their own dime anyway. Others, like Bouillon, will fly back home.

"A lot of guys were disappointed. but you have to move on," he said. "It was rough when they said we couldn't go because they had to put it on the salary cap.

"But we'll do like usual and spend Christmas here."

Why the Canadiens do so badly on the holiday season trip is a puzzle. If anything, the home teams' players should be the ones with the family distractions and the overfed bellies.

Goaltender Cristobal Huet was appraised of the team's late December road record over the years, shook his head and said "I can't argue with that."

"Definitely, it's something we'd like to improve," he said. "This is our job and that's our main focus - to play hockey. As long as we have two days to spend with the family, then we can get back to business."

Huet, who did not play in the two games since he returned from a pulled groin, is expected to start in Washington, but Carbonneau said he has yet to decide on his goaltender.

A blunder while trying to clear a puck by rookie goalie Carey Price played a part in Montreal's 3-2 home loss to Florida on Tuesday night, although most of the defeat had to do with a listless effort by the team.

Carbonneau also would not say whether left winger Guillaume Latendresse will return to the lineup after sitting out a game as a healthy scratch.


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