The Montreal Canadiens came into Winnipeg Thursday looking like a team in freefall.
And they kept right on falling, losing 4-0 to Jets before a rowdy crowd at the MTS Centre that included more than a few Habs jerseys.
Montreal has been reeling for a week. They’ve lost five straight games, including a 5-1 defeat in Chicago Wednesday. Their new interim coach, Randy Cunneyworth, looks flummoxed and the team seems to be buckling under the pressure of a growing controversy over Cunneyworth's inability to speak French which by Thursday had included calls for protests at the Bell Centre in Montreal.
If all that wasn’t enough, there was more intrigue Thursday concerning defenceman P.K. Subban. In the morning he bravely told reporters he’d been playing lousy and felt compelled to come forward and show accountability. “I don’t mind being the guy to step up and be accountable because I haven’t played my best,” said Subban, who has been logging substantial ice time but has just two goals and 12 assists this season.
For that kind of frankness, he got benched.
"We have some guys that are still learning a lot of things that we need to address, certain issues with his game and I think he is one of a few that we could have taken out of the lineup,” Cunneyworth said after the game in explaining why he sat Subban. “That doesn’t give anyone else a free pass by any means ... I think everybody is part of this."
He was hoping the benching would send a signal to the other players. It didn’t.
"It is a frustrating time right now,” Cunneyworth acknowledged. “But there's nothing to do but to pull up your socks and get after it again. You can’t feel sorry for yourself. If a guy's feeling sorry for themselves they’re in the wrong business."
When asked if it was Montreal’s worst game of the year, forward Michael Cammalleri struggled to find an answer and then said: “I don’t know. Sure, maybe circumstantial-wise the result might be the worst of the year so far.”
It was all a far cry from the last time the Habs came to town. That was on Oct. 9. The first NHL game at the MTS Centre, the first game for the new Winnipeg Jets, the first NHL hockey in Winnipeg in 15 years. The arena, the city, the province were a madhouse. But the Canadiens looked calm that day, under then-coach Jacques Martin, and they dismantled the Jets 5-1.
That seems a lifetime ago. Montreal looks nothing like that early October team any more and Martin lost his job last weekend. Thursday was no better.
Take almost any measure of the game and it reflected poorly on Montreal. The team didn’t score on five power plays, it lost 63 per cent of the faceoffs and it was outshot 34-27. And that's just the stuff that can be measured. There were countless missed passes, constant confusion about positioning and many lost races to the puck.
Things went bad for the Canadiens from the start. Barely three minutes into the game, Hal Gill took a double-minor penalty for high sticking. The Jets capitalized quickly with Blake Wheeler scoring from the far side of the net after a nice cross-rink pass from Dustin Byfuglien.
The Jets added another one on a goal by Tanner Glass, set up by some crisp passing from Nik Antropov and Kyle Wellwood. By the end of the first period Winnipeg was up 2-0 and firmly in control.
The Jets picked up the pace in the second period. Wheeler got another goal just 39 seconds into the period on a shot that easily beat Price on his stick side. That prompted a round of jeering for Price by the MTS Centre crowd.
Montreal had plenty of opportunities to come back. The Jets took four penalties in the second period, including a double-minor to Chris Thorburn for high sticking. The Jets killed them all off with ease and even had the best scoring chances when Glass and Jim Slater got free for a two-on-one during one penalty and then Slater rushed in again alone during another. Price managed the saves, but Montreal looked rattled.
Montreal didn’t look much better in the third, save for a few decent rushes. And by about halfway through the period some fans started chanting “Where is P.K.?”
Finally, Jets forward Tim Stapleton, who has just four goals this season, scored with less than two minutes left in the game to seal it at 4-0.
Jets goalie Ondrej Pavelec got his third shutout of the season, stopping 27 shots. He also picked up an assist on Wheeler’s second goal, his second assist of the season. But he didn’t have to work that hard for the shutout, unlike some recent Jets outings where his heart-stopping saves kept the team alive.
“We didn't bend,” Wheeler said after the game. “We didn't give them any scoring opportunities [in the third period] We still skated, and those are the things you need to do to win in this league.”
He added that the Jets have “made life a little tough on [Winnipeg goaltenders]on some nights, so when we're able to make it a little bit easier and keep that shutout for them, that's the most satisfying thing.”
Added Pavelec: “I think we did everything right. Every time you score first, it helps you a lot.”
The Jets moved to 16-13-5 and have 37 points, making them tied for eighth in the Eastern Conference with New Jersey. The Canadiens dropped to 13-16-7 and have 33 points, leaving the team stuck in a pack at the bottom.
The Jets continue their long December homestand with a game Friday against Pittsburgh.
Montreal takes a break for Christmas and plays in Ottawa on Dec. 27.
The few days off won’t likely do much to diminish their angst or ease their freefall.
“The time for talk is over,” said Montreal defenceman Josh Gorges. “We have to take the break and get away from hockey, get away from the frustration.”
That won’t be easy in hockey-mad Montreal, where Thursday’s game will likely be picked over for the duration of the holidays. Even in the Cammalleri household.
"I'm assuming there is going to be an elephant in the room when I get home with the family,” he said after the game. “People will probably try an avoid the hockey question.”