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Habs loss has vultures circling Add to ...

Now the water starts to get uncomfortably warm.

Lose a couple in a row, you can chalk it up to a slow start, lose half-a-dozen on the bounce and maybe the talk surrounding the coach’s future starts to make a little more sense.

Though said coach, the Montreal Canadiens’ Jacques Martin, remains as upbeat as seems decent under the circumstances, there is anger, bewilderment and, yes, shame among his players.

“We’re ashamed, but we have to sort it out,” winger Mathieu Darche said from his stall in a Montreal dressing room that was funeral-parlour silent.

It’s not that they stank the joint out in losing 2-1 to the Florida Panthers. Quite the opposite.

“I think we only gave up seven scoring chances,” said Martin. “We had about 13.”

But of the few mistakes the Habs did make - a bad penalty in the first period, a worse clearing attempt on the subsequent power-play, a lost foot-race and a loose coverage in the third period - goals were scored.

“We’re right there,” said defenceman Josh Gorges, who took the penalty that lead to Florida’s first goal, “that’s the most frustrating part.”

After seeing their scorers blunted by the likes of Calgary’s Miikka Kiprusoff and Buffalo’s Ryan Miller over the past two weeks, the Habs ran into another goaltending buzz-saw in the person of Florida’s Jacob Markstrom on Monday.

Four times this season, the Canadiens have bombarded the opposing net with 36 or more shots, and they have won exactly none of those games.

Markstrom, a six-foot-six-inch rookie, turned away 40 of 41 shots, including an outrageous right pad stop on Habs’ sniper Michael Cammalleri on the lip of the crease with Montreal on a six-on-four power-play in the final minute.

It may only have been his third or fourth-best save of the night - ask poor old Darche, who will be having nightmares about hulking Swedish goalies after seeing three certain goals taken away by Markstrom.

Or Max Pacioretty, whose canny back-handed flip at the side of net was smothered by Markstrom’s glove.

“He’s like a Transformer, we’re not sure if he’s human or part alien,” said Florida’s Scottie Upshall, whose first goal in a Panthers uniform Markstrom, of course, was drafted by Martin when he was GM of the Panthers. Yeah, it’s like that for the Habs this year.

Montreal back-up Peter Budaj, who was making his first regular season start as a Canadien, did yeoman work in parrying 29 shots, his only sin was not being as brilliant as the guy at the other end of the ice.

Markstrom was lucky too, it has to be said. A quick whistle in the first period prevented the Habs from going up 2-1 after the youngster was unable to hold Andrei Kostitsyn’s drive from the faceoff dot and saw Travis Moen poke a loose puck into the net.

In any case, the Canadiens remain mired in last place in the Eastern Conference standings, and have now dropped five straight games on home ice and six overall (although they have collected a pair of overtime points in the process.) Once again, it started brightly enough.

Erik Cole, a favourite target of fan impatience in this young season, scored his first goal as a Hab on a first-period power-play, re-directing a Pacioretty tip (it was only Montreal’s third power-play marker of the year).

Florida struck back a few minutes later on a power-play of their own, Cammalleri’s giveaway allowing Tomas Fleischmann to squib a bouncing puck through back-up goaltender Peter Budaj.

In the third period, Scottie Upshall out-battled Montreal’s Hal Gill and tipped a Dmitri Kulikov shot past a helpless Budaj, whose only fault on the evening was that he was only fractionally less brilliant than Jacob Markstrom, the man at the other end of the ice (Mathieu Darche will be having nightmares about the big Swede).

That’s bad enough, but there was also worse news: Pacioretty, the team’s top scorer, left the game at the end of the second period after screaming down the ice to try and win a loose puck against a Florida defenceman.

He is reported to have an upper-body injury and will be re-evaluated on Tuesday.

Against this back-drop, the question from the Bell Centre boo-birds - who were in full throat by the middle of the third period - gets louder and more insistent: what ails the Habs and how to fix it, immediately?

There’s been a chorus of denunciation on the on-line shows and message boards about all sorts of factors: a supposed feud between coach and expensive free agent, the team is too small and too soft, the star goalie’s regressed, the defence is too green, guys are too injury-prone.

Then there are those who want the coach fired because he’s too conservative, because he ruins young players, because he’s too stubborn to adjust (never mind that he reportedly has heavily punitive early termination clauses in his four-year contract).

And they want to summarily dismiss the GM who stubbornly refuses to provide the team with a big, strapping, franchise player to centre his top line and a cadre of giant pugilists with the hands of a 40-goal scorer.

Some of the criticism is justified - Martin’s stubborn insistence to play Plekanec on the point on power-plays and the over-utilization of Darche with the man-advantage - but it all sounds a tad hysterical given the Canadiens have another 74 games to play.

If anything, the Habs have been unlucky to lose at least a couple of games in which they dominated their opponents for long swaths of time (most notably in a 2-1 loss to Buffalo).

They’ve fallen prey to some untimely lapses, and some veteran performers - like Brian Gionta, Tomas Plekanec, Gorges, and Gill, to point fingers at just four - haven’t yet found their finest form.

Either way, the prevailing sentiment in the dressing room is that this too shall pass.

“We’ve just got to try and simplify things to get that confidence back,” said Gill. “It stings when you lose, but you have to find a way to get out of it.”

If that calm, level-headed message sounds like a disconnect with the feelings of the fans - a criticism of modern pro sports - well, it is.

But Martin is correct to point out that there are some positives to be drawn from Monday’s game.

The power-play, for one. It was a threat all night despite registering only one goal.

And the play of men like P.K. Subban, who was at his swash-buckling best, hitting, skating and dangling like few other defencemen in the league can.

Or young centres Lars Eller - who is blossoming with each game - and David Desharnais.

Think it’ll be enough to stop the calls for the coach’s head?

In the know

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