Playing for the storied Montreal Canadiens carries with it extra scrutiny and the weight of lofty expectations.
That intense pressure appears to be having an adverse effect on this season's team.
Expected to be among the league's elite clubs, the struggling Canadiens hope to avoid their fourth straight loss Saturday when they host the rival Ottawa Senators.
At 27-11-6 in mid-January, Montreal appeared poised to challenge Boston for the top seed in the Eastern Conference and at least looked like a certain playoff team. A 3-11-1 slide, however, has dropped the Canadiens (30-22-7) to sixth in the East, just two points ahead of ninth-place Carolina.
The skid continued Thursday as Montreal concluded a six-game road trip with a 5-4 loss to Pittsburgh.
Perhaps the biggest reason for the Canadiens' slide down the standings is the recent performance of All-Star goaltender Carey Price, who is 2-8-1 with a 3.82 goals-against average since his return Jan. 20 from an unspecified injury. He was 7-0-2 with a 2.09 GAA immediately before getting hurt.
Price, however, has won his last four starts against the Senators (22-26-9), including both this season.
All-Star MVP forward Alex Kovalev, who has 13 goals this season after scoring 35 last year, is expected back in the lineup Saturday after he was ordered by Montreal general manager Bob Gainey to sit out the last two games.
"Alex has made it clear to me and Bob how much he wants to stay and fight for the Montreal Canadiens," coach Guy Carbonneau told the Canadiens' official Web site. "That's the most important thing and why it was an easy decision for me to have him come back and play against Ottawa."
After dealing with the Kovalev situation, the Canadiens are being forced to handle another problem that came to light Friday. The French-language daily La Presse reported that forwards Andrei and Sergei Kostitsyn and defenseman Roman Hamrlik have alleged ties to Pasquale Mangiola, who was arrested Feb. 12 on drug charges.
Andrei Kostitsyn told La Presse following Thursday's loss that he knew Mangiola but that he didn't know anything about his situation.
"Well, I can only go on what I know today, and I think what I know today is not good," Gainey said. "It's not good for our team. It doesn't reflect well on our team, it doesn't reflect well on the individuals, it cannot be extinguished as a possible inhibitor to our performance."
The Senators will be hard pressed to reach the playoffs for a 12th straight season, sitting 13 points behind Florida and Buffalo as those clubs are tied for seventh.
Ottawa, though, has played much better lately, going 5-2-2 under interim coach Cory Clouston. Thursday's 5-2 loss to Vancouver was the Senators' first regulation defeat under Clouston since he lost his NHL debut to Los Angeles on Feb. 3.
"We need to win a lot of games from here on in," forward Mike Foligno said. "We know our backs are up against the wall and we can't afford any more errors."
Captain Daniel Alfredsson sat out Thursday and will miss at least another two games due to a broken jaw suffered in Tuesday's loss at Colorado.
Hoping to inject some life into an offense that ranks last in the East with 141 goals, Ottawa on Friday acquired center Mike Comrie and defenseman Chris Campoli from the New York Islanders for center Dean McAmmond and a first-round draft pick.
Comrie had seven goals in 41 games while Campoli had six in 51.
The Canadiens have won five straight against the Senators - the last two in shootouts - after losing eight of the previous nine meetings.