WINNIPEG – One of these days, Montreal is going to turn it around. Thursday was not that day.
A lineup shake-up, Carey Price's return and a vocal pro-Montreal section of another MTS Centre sell-out crowd could not save the Canadiens from extending their losing streak to five with a 4-0 loss to the Winnipeg Jets.
Montreal coach Randy Cunneyworth shuffled his lineup after a 5-1 loss to the Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday, scratching P.K. Subban – minus-4 in two losses this week – for the first time this season, along with Lars Eller.
Carey Price returned to the Montreal net after Peter Budaj received a rare start in Chicago. But even Price's strong work in a 30-save effort could not prevent a Winnipeg attack that consistently won puck battles, outmuscled the Canadiens and maintained offensive pressure all night.
"He was left to his own devices at times," Cunneyworth said of Price, "and he was doing all he can to stop that puck. We've got to be better in front of him."
And while the Habs fans in attendance tried to match the raucous pro-Jets crowd early, the fans drowned everything out when the Jets (16-13-5) blew the game open early on. Very little went right for the Habs (13-16-7), who are now 0-4-0 since Cunneyworth replaced Jacques Martin last Saturday and have dropped all three games of a six-game road trip that will continue next Tuesday at Ottawa.
"We realize what's going on," Cunneyworth said of the Canadiens' sinking fortunes. "We've got to work a little bit harder. We have to have a little more balance in our line up. I think obviously it comes down to competing, being a little more physical and having some resolve. I think it's about sticking together."
The Jets have now won six of their eight games on home ice this month, a hot streak they look to continue against Pittsburgh on Friday. The win pushed the Jets into ninth place in the Eastern Conference and within one point of sixth-place Toronto
"I think that for us, we're gaining some confidence at home," Jets coach Claude Noel said. "I think that we're enjoying being in the race and right at that line. I think that the players enjoy that."
The Jets emphasized pouncing on the Canadiens early, and they executed that plan.
"You know what kind of struggles they've been going through over there," said Tanner Glass, "and you want to put your foot on the gas and make it a tough night for them if you can."
Missing top center Bryan Little for the second consecutive game, Winnipeg used the first of Blake Wheeler's two goals 3:18 into the game to shatter the Canadiens' already-fragile confidence. Wheeler, who also recorded a late assist, had not recorded a two-goal evening since April 5. Glass and Tim Stapleton added the Jets' other goals.
The Habs did not seriously test Winnipeg goaltender Ondrej Pavelec, who made his 29th start and turned in a 27-save night for the Jets. Pavelec now has three shutouts this season, two of them coming at the MTS Centre in December. Even with five second-period power plays that totaled 9:11 and begat a 16-8 shots advantage, the Canadiens could not penetrate Winnipeg, and failed to generate sustained pressure on Pavelec.
"We just battled," Pavelec explained. "We battled so hard. We had energy right away."
But Pavelec did not put much stock in shutting out the Canadiens.
"All I wanted is two points," Pavelec said. "That is all that I need."
But Pavelec's teammates made closing out the Canadiens on the scoreboard their objective over the second half of the game.
"We didn't bend," Wheeler said, "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. Somewhere down the line, that's going to 2-1 game or a 1-0 game, and if we can learn from what we did tonight and keep doing that, we're going to be a really tough team to beat, especially in the third period.
"To keep that [shutout], not just for [Pavelec] but for the entire team, is huge. We've 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."
That late-game defensive commitment pleased Noel.
"I think that they played for the goaltender," Noel said. "I think they were very conscientious of what they wanted to do there [with a lead]."
The Jets used a high-sticking double-minor to Hal Gill just 2:43 in to put the Canadiens in an early hole. Enstrom cycled the puck low to Byfuglien, stationed to the left of Price. Byfuglien held the puck for a moment before feeding a cross-slot pass to Wheeler, who snapped a shot under the cross bar 35 seconds into the first half of Gill's penalty. The Canadiens' road penalty kill ranked second in the NHL entering the game, and Montreal had killed off 14 of 15 opposing power plays in their last five games before Wheeler struck.
The Jets built on their lead later in the period when Wellwood beat two Canadiens to a loose puck along the left boards and forwarded the puck to Antropov. The rangy center then dished a pass from the bottom left circle into the slot that Glass whipped low past Price for his first goal in 19 games.
Montreal's fortunes turned worse just 39 seconds into the second period. Winnipeg defenseman Ron Hainsey sent a long stretch pass from his own goal line to Wheeler, who broke into the Montreal zone and scored from the right circle under Price's right arm.
Stapleton closed out the Canadiens with 2:24 to play, converting Wheeler's crease feed.
Mike Cammalleri, who has just one goal in 11 games in December, acknowledged that the game might have been the Canadiens' worst all-around effort this season.
"I'd have to watch it," Cammalleri said. "It felt like early we had some pressure and they got a couple of goals. I don't know. Sure may be, circumstantial-wise, the result. The result might be the worst of the year so far."