Sustained underachievement and mediocrity breed a particular brand of corrosiveness, and it’s clearly beginning to gnaw at the Montreal Canadiens.
On Tuesday, a night former goaltender Jaroslav Halak marked his Bell Centre return with a shutout victory for the St. Louis Blues, the crowd booed the hometown Habs loudly at the end of the second period and in the closing stages of the final frame.
Opinions among the impassioned are apt to swing wildly, and jeering segments of the stands also singled out scuffling sniper Michael Cammalleri, the crowd favourite and playoff goal machine whose likeness is plastered on the outside of the building.
In a dressing room that is plainly sick of being a poor-to-middling hockey team, Cammalleri gave voice to that sentiment and his own frustrations on Wednesday.
Speaking to reporters from La Presse and NHL.com, Cammalleri talked about how he’s played for both good and bad teams in his career and intimated the Habs have developed a “losing mentality.”
He expanded on those thoughts to say the Habs, 12th place in the Eastern Conference, play like they are terrified of making mistakes and are a squad that believes it “needs to play perfect to win.”
Cammalleri said the Habs must urgently regain the fearlessness and confidence they displayed in making a run to the conference final in 2010.
He might have added that he and his linemates – fellow strugglers Tomas Plekanec (a team-worst minus-12 on the season) and Brian Gionta need to recapture some lost magic as well.
Actually, you can strike Gionta from the list: Just two games after returning from an 11-game absence with a groin injury, his season is likely over.
Gionta, the team captain, underwent surgery to repair a torn right biceps on Wednesday.
When things are going badly in pro sports, fates often conspire to make them worse.
Cammalleri’s diagnosis of what ails the team may well be bang on – that he would go so far as to make such feelings public, generally a no-no in the cloistered world of NHL dressing rooms, will surely raise eyebrows, even if it’s a fairly standard cri du coeur from an athlete frustrated by poor performances.
Either way, speculation is mounting in Quebec’s hockey chattering classes that Cammalleri, who has become a whipping boy among talk-show pundits, might not be averse to waiving his limited no-trade clause were a deal to come along before the Feb. 27 deadline.
Cammalleri has repeated on countless occasions that he loves playing in Montreal and is determined to see out his six-year, $30-million (U.S.) contract; the boos can be interpreted as a sign his love affair with fans has gone off the boil (although a few wins and a well-timed hat trick would surely put things back on track).
The man at the centre of it all insisted he didn’t take it that way.
“I’ve come to know what to expect from the crowd. You’ve got to be sensitive to the fact that Canadiens fans live and die with their team. If anything, you can identify with how they feel, they’re not happy. … I wasn’t disappointed, more so I probably expected it,” Cammalleri told a large media scrum.
At the same time, he also alluded to his declining playing time since Randy Cunneyworth took over as coach from the deposed Jacques Martin 10 games ago.
“I’m not playing as much so I’ve got to get a little more work in practice, and stay in shape here,” he said, smiling after the Habs’ workout ahead of their game in Boston against the Bruins Thursday.
Whereas Cammalleri typically averaged close to 19 minutes of ice time a game under Martin, on average, that has dropped to 16 under Cunneyworth, who doesn’t use him on the penalty kill.
On Tuesday, he played 15 minutes 1 second, his second-lowest total of the season.
It didn’t help that Cammalleri, Plekanec and Gionta were on the ice for the Blues’ first two goals on Tuesday – Cammalleri’s blown assignment was directly responsible for the first one.
The Richmond Hill, Ont., native, has scored 54 goals in 159 regular-season games (and 16 in 25 playoff games) since joining the Habs as a free agent in 2009, but has a modest nine goals in 37 games this season, and only one on the power play.
But he has three in his past six outings, and said his confidence remains intact.
“I know I’m a better player now than I’ve ever been,” he said, alluding to the extra work he has put in as his struggles have deepened.