The NHL all-star break is a not-so-welcome sight for the Montreal Canadiens. A week ago, yes, just about every player would have welcomed the chance to get out of town.
After all, talk about your season from hell. It wouldn't have been much longer before the media would have been calling for the firing of the janitors.
Now, though, there is a spark of hope. Just a spark, mind you, considering the hole the Canadiens dug for themselves. But getting three out of four points in back-to-back games on the weekend, topped by a brilliant stretch of goaltending by Carey Price in a 3-1 win over the listless Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday, sparked some dreaming.
The trouble is, the Canadiens don't play until Wednesday, against the Detroit Red Wings, and then they're off for five days until they play the Buffalo Sabres.
Making the NHL playoffs, thanks to the three-point games, is all about getting on a roll and riding it as hard as you can.
"Things look a little brighter," forward Lars Eller said. "We've still got more than 30 games to go [in the season] We're keeping the faith in this locker room."
It would be quite a leap of faith to see the Canadiens ascend to even the eighth and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference. After 48 games, they have 45 points, which is barely within hailing distance of the playoffs.
To guarantee making the postseason, an Eastern Conference team will need at least 93 points and more likely 95. To get 95, the Canadiens need a mere 50 points in their last 34 games, which requires a nifty 25-9 record or 23-7-4 or an equally unlikely combination.
"We can't let anything bother us," Price said when the size of the Canadiens' task was mentioned.
Well, considering the way Price is playing these days, capped by his 32-save performance against the Leafs, you might think the Canadiens have a shot. Unfortunately, there is a goal-scoring component to this.
As a group, the Canadiens have scored 123 goals in 48 games so far, an average of 2.56 a game. The only East teams to score fewer are the New York Islanders, Buffalo Sabres and Florida Panthers. Only the Panthers are in a playoff position.
There is little chance of a sudden scoring explosion in sight, given that the Canadiens' leading point producer, winger Erik Cole, has 36 points, followed by Max Pacioretty with 33. Even the Islanders have three players with 40 points or more.
The Canadiens will find out quickly after the all-star break if they have any chance of making a move. They play the Sabres, New Jersey Devils, Washington Capitals and the Jets. All of those teams except the Sabres are in front of them so even one loss will be deadly.
So all those Canadiens fans on the Internet forums with an eye to the NHL's entry draft calling for them to finish last overall still have lots of hope left.
THE MAPLE LEAFS, ON THE OTHER HAND
Unlike the Montreal Canadiens, the Toronto Maple Leafs could use the NHL all-star break. Not that it allows head coach Ron Wilson much time to fix a team that looks like it could fritter away its season.
The streaky Leafs showed all of their warts in losing 3-1 to the Canadiens on Saturday, the second time in three games last week they lost a game they should have won. The warts are all too familiar to their fans – an indifferent defensive game and an indifferent work ethic that made it look like the Leafs were a team that had already checked out for the break even though back-to-back games with the New York Islanders are ahead on Monday and Tuesday.
Actually, Wilson said, he and his assistant coaches will be working at both ends of the ice this week in what little practice time they have before the break begins Thursday. Canadiens goaltender Carey Price played well but the Leafs forwards made it too easy for him, the coach said, and the Leafs made too many mistakes in front of their own goaltender.
"We didn't get to the front of the net and screen him. That's something we have to work on," Wilson said. "You have to pay a price in an ugly game. We didn't create enough traffic."
Two of the players most in need to defensive lessons will be at the all-star game, where defence is just a rumour – wingers Joffrey Lupul and Phil Kessel. They were reunited in the third period Saturday when Wilson was trying to find some scoring.
Lupul, who missed a chance to clear the puck on the Canadiens' winning goal, finished minus-3. At least he is plus-2 for the season. Kessel is even. Neither mark is impressive for a team's two best players even if they are among the NHL's best scorers.
ONE BOOK TO READ
As a public service, the staff here at NHL Lookahead has a much better way for you to spend Sunday afternoon instead of watching the NHL all-star game.
First of all, a confession of bias: The fellow who wrote the book we're going to recommend is a friend. But Gare Joyce is also pretty handy at putting words together, as noted in a favourable review a few days ago by The Globe and Mail's Margaret Cannon. "Good to the final paragraph," was the judgment of Cannon, so we're not pumping a buddy's tires as they like to say in hockey dressing rooms.
Like the NHL all-star game, The Code is a fictional look at hockey. But unlike the all-star game, Joyce's story of a grinder-turned-scout, Brad Shade, and his attempts to solve the murder of a junior hockey legend while preserving the jobs of himself and his boss, The Code, from Penguin Canada, is thoroughly entertaining.
Joyce (whose moniker is G.B. Joyce on the book for some reason, thanks to one of the Penguin suits) presents a realistic take on the world of professional hockey, realistic enough to studiously avoid the use of NHL, in order to keep the league's lawyers at bay. He also has some fun with the names of his characters.
There is the corpse, for example, of one Red Hanratty, a coach whose legend outstrips the reality, and whose name must have come from a perusal of the Hockey News archives from before the First World War.
Our favourite name is Billy Mays, senior and junior. Junior is a talented young player and the progeny of one of those detestable businessmen whose relentlessly upbeat approach is driven by slogans. Just like an infomercial pitch man.
FIVE PLAYERS TO WATCH
With the NHL's general managers gathering at the all-star game in Ottawa this week, trade talks will heat up. Here's five forwards certain to be discussed:
The Anaheim Ducks winger is the prize of the group but general manager Bob Murray may not be inclined to trade him now that the Ducks are winning.
Mr. Inconsistency is headed toward unrestricted free agency. The Edmonton Oilers winger is tempting to someone who thinks a chance of scenery will get him going.
He'll be 38 in February and is also headed to free agency but unlike Hemsky, Prospal of the Columbus Blue Jackets is a consistent producer.
Now we're getting to the remainder bin. The Carolina Hurricanes forward is probably a little better than the rest of the names known to be in play.
He has three years left on his contract at $4-million (U.S.) a season, which is terrible value for his point-every-two-games pace. But the Buffalo Sabres winger is 26 and has some talent, so someone desperate might be tempted.
FIVE GAMES TO WATCH
Blues at Red Wings
The Central Division fight among the St. Louis Blues, Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks is the best one in the league. Blues head coach Ken Hitchcock is also fighting it out with Ottawa Senators counterpart Paul MacLean as coach of the year. Monday, 7:30 p.m., TSN2.
Senators at Kings
The aforementioned MacLean leads his Senators against the rejuvenated Los Angeles lads in Game 4 of their five-game trip. If you want to skip work for some reason on Tuesday, this would make a good back end of a doubleheader. Monday, 10:30 p.m., Sportsnet East.
Senators at Coyotes
As noted above, this is the return of Ottawa centre Kyle Turris to Phoenix, the team he could not wait to leave. Given the size of the Coyotes' crowds, the boos will not be deafening. Tuesday, 9 p.m., Sportsnet East.
Bruins at Capitals Unless you have the NHL Centre Ice package, you'll have to head for your local to see this one. But the Caps are showing signs of life so it might be worth it and chances are you won't have to listen to Bruins play-by-play shill Jack Edwards at your pub. Tuesday, 7 p.m., NESN.
NHL all-star game
This game was listed just to tell you this: If you watch it, turn in your hockey fan card immediately. Sunday, 4 p.m., CBC, RDS.