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Tough week ahead as Canadiens try to shake out of slump

It is a malaise that they'll have to get out of soon to avoid slipping out playoff position in the Eastern Conference.

The Canadiens were threatening the conference-leading Buffalo Sabres in mid-December, but since a 4-2 loss in Boston on Dec. 23, they have gone into an 8-14-1 tailspin that has seen them drop to sixth place.

The ninth-place (out of playoff position) Toronto Maple Leafs are only three points back.

"Six or seven weeks is not a slump, it's a pattern of play," forward Mike Johnson said after the latest loss, a 5-3 defeat at the hands of the division-rival Ottawa Senators on Saturday night. It was Montreal's third loss in a row and fourth in the last five games.

"It's almost habitual at that point. It's not something you can write off to the length of the season or anything like that. It's something on-going within the team."

Whatever the particulars are, the players aired them out amongst themselves in a 29-meeting closed-door meeting after the game.

In brief, Canadiens goaltenders Cristobal Huet and David Aebischer, who were solid through the first half of the season, have both begun to struggle.

The top forwards, who were no more than OK in the first three months, have almost all gone stone cold. Defenceman Sheldon Souray leads the team in goals (18) and points (46).

Careless mistakes, particularly penalties, have become chronic.

First-year coach Guy Carbonneau has used all his weapons to try to shake up his squad, including making healthy scratches of veterans Craig Rivet (one game) and Sergei Samsonov (four games).

On Saturday night, he benched Alex Kovalev, supposedly the team's big gun but who has only 13 goals this season, for most of the third period.

Kovalev had calmed down by the time the meeting ended, but still gave his thoughts on what ails the team.

"We're not enjoying the games," he said. "We're playing scared.

"We're scared of getting benched or scratched. Right now, we're in a bad atmosphere and to make it right we have to come back and start over like it's Day One."

That would be Tuesday facing the Florida Panthers, who are 2-0-1 against Montreal this season, and Wednesday against the Devils, who are 3-0 (including an overtime win) against the Canadiens.

A nasty gastrointestinal virus ran through the club during the Christmas period when the slump began, but the poor play continued long after the virus passed.

Now Rivet is now out of action until at least Wednesday with pneumonia and Johnson is playing through a bad flu, but the only epidemic is scoring anemia, particularly at even strength.

Captain Saku Koivu has only one goal in his last 20 games. Kovalev has one in his last nine. Chris Higgins has gone 12 without a goal. Michael Ryder got is second in 13 games on Saturday night on a power play.

"The only positive we have is that we've shown we're better when we play the way we can and do the things we need to do," said Johnson, one of the few Canadiens who has been consistently solid this season. "We can be good.

"That's comforting in a sense, but then, we know it's there and we're not doing it. Hopefully, we'll respond accordingly and play the way the standings dictate."

Lack of effort was a problem for a while, but of late, the Canadiens have played harder, if not any smarter. Bad bounces have been a side factor.

Koivu cautioned that one meeting won't solve everything.

"When things are going bad, you can't expect things to turn it around in one period," he said. "First you have to get good habits back, then get the bounces and the other stuff we're looking for."

On the positive side, energetic centre Steve Begin returned after 27 games out with a bad back and scored a goal.

And Samsonov, back after three games in the press box, had a strong game even if his one goal in 23 games drought rages on. The team's main off-season signing has only seven goals this season.

"Sergei was good," said Carbonneau. "He skated.

"There were a few times he should have shot (and didn't), but he did create some chances."

Carbonneau liked that his players held a meeting. Now he'd like them to have fun again, but that comes from winning.

"A team is 20 guys pulling in the right direction," he said. "We still have a few guys not pulling in the right direction."


Matty Beniers

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