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Bite or no bite, struggling Habs need to focus on floundering play

Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien and players, from left, Lars Eller, Alex Galchenyuk, Brian Gionta and Erik Cole look on from the bench during third period NHL action against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Montreal, Saturday, February 9, 2013.


It was a bite.

Unless it was a wayward forearm raking across a set of unsuspecting teeth.

One's perspective on l'Affaire Grabovski depends a great deal on how close you live to the Bell Centre or Air Canada Centre, now it's up to NHL disciplinarian Brendan Shanahan to weigh in on the incident, wherein Maple Leafs centre Mikhail Grabovski stands accused of sinking his teeth into the wrist area of Canadiens winger Max Pacioretty's right arm on Saturday night.

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It all went down during a third-period scrum touched off by Montreal tough guy Brandon Prust's desire to have a quiet word in Toronto winger Leo Komarov's ear after a whistle – he grabbed Komarov's jersey, a scrum ensued, punches were thrown and Pacioretty was, or wasn't, bitten as he came up behind former Hab Grabovski and wrenched him away from Prust.

Replays showed naked arm did indeed meet lower face, Grabovski will have a chance to explain himself at 11 a.m. (ET) on Monday in a call with Shanahan.

The Habs sent in post-game photos of the extremity in question, according to Sportsnet.

Canadiens players were steaming after the incident – and another where Toronto enforcer Colton Orr tried to flatten Tomas Plekanec and appeared to stick his knee out – while the Leafs pointed the finger at Prust.

That is, when they weren't pointing at the scoreboard, which would read 6-0 at the final horn.

There is a tendency to get bogged down in the argument over who started what, and whether there was any justification, the fact is the Grabovski and Orr incidents were merely sideshows in a rivalry that is beginning to do justice to the angry history between the two teams.

Of more immediate concern to the Canadiens than the ejections and penalty minutes is the fact they have now lost three games in a row.

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A lot more was dented than pride.

The Leafs exposed the ponderous Canadiens' defence as vulnerable to speed and an aggressive forecheck, while they also had their way with the Habs' penalty kill.

At the same time that's happened, the Habs' ability to play in their own zone has evaporated – they've given up more even-strength goals in the current three-game skid than they did in their previous eight combined.

It's not easy to control the puck when you lose as many faceoffs as the Habs do. They won only eight of 21 defensive zone draws against the Leafs (and 32 per cent overall).

The Habs' top defensive pair of Andrei Markov and Alexei Emelin is a combined minus-six in the last three games, the nominal top line of Pacioretty, David Desharnais and Erik Cole – who spent some time on the fourth line Saturday – is a combined minus-13 and has only one point and 18 shots during the skid.

Even goalie Carey Price, magnificent since the beginning of the season, looked human on the weekend, allowing himself to be fooled by Orr's inoffensive backhand and misplaying the puck into Korbinian Holzer's path for a tap-in to make it 5-0.

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For all that, the Habs are angrier more than they're despondent, as the team slips into the kind of form that led to last year's basement finish, the general sense is peevishness rather than 'here we go again.'

"We just need to go out on the road and put together some good games," Price said, alluding to this week's two-game Florida swing.

Added captain Brian Gionta: "Take this game out of it and we've had good efforts in every game, we've been in every game. Tonight was a fluke, it was a frustrating night for us, for sure, but we have to learn from it and move on."

There will, of course, be questions about whether a game like Saturday's will affect the Habs' psyche.


But every team in the NHL submits to at least one proper pasting at some point in the season – the division-leading Boston Bruins took a literal and figurative beating against Buffalo recently.

A case can be made this was a humiliation on the scale of the infamous Feb. 9, 2011, game against Boston, an 8-6 drubbing that featured multiple fights (most of them involving a Montreal player getting pummelled).

But for all the hand-wringing about the Habs' soft forwards, they went 5-3-2 in their next 10 games, qualified for the playoffs, and took eventual Stanley Cup champion Boston to overtime in game seven.

A first-round exit this season would have to count as a major step forward for a team that finished dead last in their conference last season.

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