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Slumping Canadiens search for answers going into showdown with rival Leafs

BROSSARD, Que. - There's a Catch-22 involved when a hockey team is in a slump and trying to build confidence.

That is the puzzle facing the Montreal Canadiens as they try to dig themselves out of 1-4-1 start to the NHL season.

"God, I hate confidence," defenceman Hal Gill said Friday. "Because you need confidence to win and you get confidence when you start winning.

"So it's tough. It's more about trust in your teammates and playing as a team than confidence. With that you get confidence as a team, together. And that's what we need."

The Canadiens, coming off a 3-1 loss Thursday night in Pittsburgh, hope for a boost when they face the rival Toronto Maple Leafs in a Saturday night classic at the Bell Centre.

They will be up against a Toronto team brimming with self-assurance from a 4-1-1 start, although that may have taken a hit with a 6-2 loss Thursday night against the Stanley Cup champion Bruins in Boston.

Fatigue may also be a factor as the Leafs play their third game in four nights. Coach Ron Wilson cancelled practice Friday to give his side a rest.

The Canadiens held a meeting to go over what has gone wrong before taking the ice at their suburban training centre and there was a lot to be discussed. Other than their 5-1 victory in the Jets return to Winnipeg on Oct. 9, they have seemed to find a new way to lose each time out.

They lost the season opener 2-0 in Toronto despite outshooting the Leafs 32-18. Even when they scored another five goals, their defence fell apart in a 6-5 shootout loss to Colorado. They outplayed Buffalo but couldn't solve Ryan Miller in a 2-1 defeat, then came out flat and got spanked in Pittsburgh.

"One of our best games was against Buffalo and you don't get rewarded for it and then maybe frustration sets in," said captain Brian Gionta. "And then you have what happened (in Pittsburgh).

"You look at the six games and you can point to different things. Untimely penalties. Special teams play at certain points change the course of games. Sometimes sloppy play has cost us. Basically it's being strong enough mentally to stick with it."

Gill disagreed with that assessment. The rangy defenceman sees the Canadiens woes from game to game as a matter of playing inside the team's system and trusting one another to play with effort and get the job done one play at a time.

"It's about supporting each other, bearing down and winning battles and counting on each other," said Gill, an ex-Penguin who was saluted in Pittsburgh for playing his 1,000th NHL game. "For whatever reason, we got away from the trust and we have to find it again, so you know that guy is going to win that battle and chip it off the boards, or chip it in the middle.

"We're kind of in between right now and that's where the execution of the system comes in. You have to be all on the same page and going in the right direction."

For coach Jacques Martin, who is increasingly the target of criticism from unhappy fans, it starts with special teams.

The Canadiens have consistently been among the best in the NHL on both the power play and in penalty killing in recent years, but they stand 25th with the man advantage with only two goals in 25 chances, an 8.0 per cent success rate.

They are 14th on the penalty kill after allowing four goals in 25 tries (84.0 per cent), although that's better than the Leafs, who have given up seven short-handed goals for a 74.1 per cent kill rate.

At practice, centre Tomas Plekanec was back on the right point on the first unit, where he played with little success through the pre-season and into the start of the regular campaign. It also had P.K. Subban on left point, with checking winger Mathieu Darche playing in front of the opponent's net and Gionta and Michael Cammalleri on the wings.

One of the knocks on Martin is that he is continually changing lines and other combinations, but injuries have given him little choice.

The Canadiens hoped to have power play ace Andrei Markov back for the start of the season after missing all but seven games in 2010-11 from two surgeries on the same knee, but the wound has been slow to heal and he is not expected back until November.

Markov is in his second week in Florida rehabbing with his surgeon and Martin said he will spend next week there as well.

With veteran Jaroslav Spacek (ribs) and newcomer Chris Campoli (knee) also out, the Canadiens are using two 25-year-olds in their first NHL season, Rafael Diaz and Alexei Emelin, on defence, as well as Yannick Weber, who spent much of last season in the AHL and who was used more often as a forward when with the NHL club.

Up front, Camalleri returned from a skate cut for the Pittsburgh game only to see Scott Gomez go down with an upper body injury. Martin said Gomez was to have an MRI and was "very doubtful" to play against the Leafs.

How much the team's highest paid player will be missed remains to be seen. Gomez has not scored a goal in 42 regular season and playoff games since he got the game-winner in a 2-0 win over the New York Rangers on Feb. 5 last season.

The top line now has Plekanec at centre between Gionta and Cammalleri.

With forward Ryan White also out, call-ups Andreas Engqvist and Aaron Palushaj remain in the line-up.

So far, the bulk of the ice time on defence has gone to second-year rearguard Subban, who has struggled at times and been his swashbuckling self at others.

"I just think that guys are gripping the sticks too tightly now," said Subban, a Toronto native who always gets up for games against the Leafs. "We have to focus on what we can control and that's hockey.

"We can't be focusing on who is in and who is out of our lineup. We get paid a lot of money to play hard every night and games like the last game are unacceptable. We've got to come out and compete.

"It's a perfect opportunity at home against a rival team that's playing well, for us to come out with a great effort. Not so much worry about the result, but just worry about the things we need to do. The little things. Competing and executing and working together. If we do those things we're going to be fine."

Spacek skated with the team and looked close to a return, but will not play.



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