It’s a proudly held tradition in the modern NHL to serve up bilge like “only the next game matters” and “win the day,” but players are not oblivious to the broader context.
Also, they can do math.
In other words the Montreal Canadiens understand keenly that if they don’t pick up their game, and sharpish, there’s a decent chance they could miss the playoffs.
“Everyone’s aware of where we are in the standings … it’s definitely not too early to think about that stuff, we can’t let points slip away,” said sparkplug winger Brendan Gallagher, whose return from injury has visibly bolstered a team that has floundered to a 6-12-1 record since Nov. 30, when it was announced goalie Carey Price would be out at least six weeks with an injury.
If results over the first 20 games provided a plush cushion, the seat is feeling hard and unyielding these days.
Part of the problem is with the occasionally ephemeral relationship between effort, execution and results. The Habs have run the gamut: winning while playing poorly, losing while playing well, and on their disastrous eight-game December trip losing while being mostly terrible.
Add in variables such as extreme competitiveness and pride, the psychological fallout of slumps becomes very taxing indeed.
Worse, recovery isn’t linear. It’s not a road with clearly marked on- and off-ramps. It’s more like a slowly wafting fog – you believe you’re emerging and another patch descends.
“I think maybe the first time we did [win] in Tampa [on Dec. 28] we almost felt that. We had the mindset of ‘we’re back off the ropes.’ We figured out quick in Florida [a 3-1 loss the next night] it just doesn’t work like that. Our mindset now is to not get ahead of ourselves,” defenceman Nathan Beaulieu said. “There’s a lot we need to get better at.”
Since the most recent road trip concluded – it was the longest the team has been away from home in decades – the arrow has stopped pointing sharply downwards.
The underlying stats are encouraging. The Habs are the fifth-best possession team in the NHL, their even-strength scoring is comfortably in the top tier.
Still, rivals are gaining in the standings and the closest ones have games in hand.
The Habs have gone win-loss-win-loss-win over their past five starts, but as coach Michel Therrien tartly pointed out this week “we can’t only come to play every second game and expect to have success.”
Hockey players are fond of saying the only meaningful competitive edge at the highest level is psychological.
First-year Habs’ captain Max Pacioretty diagnosed the problem thusly: his team has been lacking “the 5 or 10 per cent you get from playing with confidence.”
Pacioretty, who is legendarily hard on himself, said of the past month: “You learn a lot about yourself in a situation like that.”
The challenge, he continued, is to learn how to stay even-keeled.
Part of it is embracing the suck.
“We have to remember how it felt every night to get on the bus and get on the plane and be pissed off and not want to talk to anyone – pass people in hallway and bury your head because you’re embarrassed with the way things are going – you just remember that feeling and try and get better from it,” he said. “That’s how I’ve made my career and that’s how I want to improve as a captain and as a teammate.”
Which brings us to another truism: no matter how much pressure frothy fans put on their team, players feel much more from themselves and from within the room.
Part of the difficulty in overcoming dips in play lies in the relentless grind of the schedule.
“The mindset is a challenge, to have that killer instinct 82 times a year. You’re not going to have it 82 times,” winger Lars Eller said.
Getting excited and pumped up for the Winter Classic or a sell-out home crowd at the Bell Centre is one thing. Late December back-to-backs in Nashville and Minnesota are another.
“Sometimes you look at the lineup and know it’s going to be a grind defensively. Or it’s the fourth game in six nights, maybe you have a bad start to the game or an injury that‘s nagging you – there’s a lot of things that can go into it,” Eller said.
Life won’t get easier over the next 10 days.
After playing host to Sidney Crosby and the Pittsburgh Penguins this weekend, the Habs will have four days to steel themselves for a home-and-home set with Chicago – with a tricky stop in St. Louis sandwiched between – before coming home to face Boston.
After the raft of stories echoing the in-house belief that Montreal was about more than Price (including one from the author of these lines – sorry), the last month has tended to support the opposite view.
They need the current holder of the Vézina and Hart trophies. Badly.
On Friday coach Michel Therrien said Price won’t return before the Jan. 30 All-Star weekend.
By then 32 games will remain on the Habs’ regular-season schedule. It’s enough time for Price to regain his exalted top form and for Montreal to rack up the points they’ll need for a playoff spot.
Assuming they survive the next three weeks without him.Report Typo/Error