There is a question on the minds of fretful Montreal Canadiens fans, and it’s not a happy one.
It goes, more or less, like this: Is this the week Habs blow their chance at home-ice advantage?
The fear is the team, which has occupied a lofty perch in the Eastern Conference for two months, has started hurtling back to earth, and is in danger of cracking up on re-entry.
Perhaps. But if such is the case, the anxious clucking from the nervous nellies in the fan base isn’t being heard in the dressing room.
Well, not too loudly, anyway.
“We’re in a good place right now. We weren’t for a week there. Obviously, as soon as everyone jumps on you, it’s easy to feel sorry for yourself and let down, but we’re at the point where we need to fight back,” said forward Max Pacioretty, who admitted his own game needs to improve vastly. “I think it would be a problem in the playoffs if we never had to deal with some adversity. This is our adversity.”
The Habs have spent the two days since they were outclassed 5-1 by the surging Washington Capitals doing something you don’t much see 45 games into the season: going back to basics.
Practice has been filled with chalk-talks, zone drills and the sort of work on breakouts and board battles that typically characterize training camp.
Lest anyone think the time for teaching was months ago, the players don’t appear to feel that way.
“We need to compete harder, practising helps. You play the way you practice, and we haven’t had a lot of time to practice this year. To have two intense ones like that, back to back, should show in the next game,” centre David Desharnais said.
The Habs close out the season with three road games – against the now-eliminated New Jersey Devils on Tuesday, in Winnipeg on Thursday, and in Toronto on Saturday.
Should the Habs stumble into the Ontario capital on the back of a pair of losses, that game could well be played with home-ice advantage in the first round on the line.
In a perfect world, the Habs won’t let it get that far, but that will require plugging a lot of leaks.
While many have singled out goalie Carey Price during the current 2-5 slide, the problems run far deeper.
Forwards like Pacioretty, Desharnais and Tomas Plekanec have seen their production dip, winger Rene Bourque is plainly not the same player he was before suffering a concussion in February that sidelined him for 21 games.
On the blueline, Andrei Markov’s lack of mobility has become evident to Habs opponents, which is a growing concern given a lack of depth and the heavy load he carries. The Russian is coming off two years on the sidelines because of knee reconstructions, and was named as the team’s nominee for the Bill Masterton Memorial Trophy on Monday – a worthy honour, and it’s no surprise his skating has been hampered by his balky knees.
When head coach Michel Therrien was asked if he’s noticed any changes recently in Markov’s game, he was diplomatic.
“Other teams have adjusted, it goes both ways. Andrei has been great on the power play … he’s very important to us,” he said.
Beyond the forwards’ lethargy and Markov’s struggles, a knee injury to Alexei Emelin has robbed the defence of depth, the recent return of Raphael Diaz from a concussion should help restore a semblance of defensive balance, and Therrien said he’ll tinker with his lineup to achieve it.
To that end, Diaz and Josh Gorges (whose customary steadiness has deserted him in the past couple of weeks) will play together in New Jersey, which presumes P.K. Subban and Francis Bouillon will play top-pair minutes while Markov could see somewhat more sheltered time alongside Yannick Weber.
“We’re trying to balance it as much as we can,” Therrien said.
The official objective this week is three wins, which would guarantee Montreal opens the playoffs at the Bell Centre.
If the Maple Leafs were to lose one of their remaining games, a single Habs win would ensure they finish no lower than fourth in the East.
But more than the immediate objective, the Habs are looking to strike the right mind set for the postseason. “We need to find our winning mind-set … we need to have fun again,” Desharnais said.