MONTREAL -- In an ideal world, the Montreal Canadiens would be heading out Monday on their final road trip of the regular season with little to worry about aside from staying healthy and sharp for the start of the Stanley Cup Playoffs.
But the past two weeks have been far from ideal for the Canadiens.
A 2-5-0 stretch since April 9 has not hurt Montreal's positioning in the Eastern Conference standings too much, but it has put the Canadiens' chances of going deep into the playoffs considerably in doubt, particularly because of the way the team has lost of late.
In their past four losses the Canadiens have allowed 23 goals, or 19.2 percent of their 120 goals allowed in 45 games this season.
"We just haven't been the same team we were for the first 35 games," left wing Rene Bourque said Monday after a second straight day of practice. "It comes down to details, getting back to playing with an edge and everybody playing smart. Guys are trying, but we're just not playing smart. We're making bad mistakes; we're a little off, a second late and hesitating a little bit. It's made a big difference. But everybody realizes that and we've got to take these three games almost like playoff games."
Over the course of the next two games at the New Jersey Devils on Tuesday and at the Winnipeg Jets on Thursday, the Canadiens will be working toward making sure the final game of the season at the Toronto Maple Leafs on Saturday does not have home-ice advantage in the first round on the line. The Canadiens are tied in points with the Boston Bruins atop the Northeast Division, though Boston has a game in hand, and Montreal has a four-point lead on Toronto for fourth place in the East.
The Maple Leafs play back-to-back at the Tampa Bay Lightning and Florida Panthers on Wednesday and Thursday before returning home to face the Canadiens on Saturday. If Montreal loses its two road games in regulation and Toronto gets a split in Florida, that final game of the season would determine home ice in a first-round series between the two clubs because the Maple Leafs hold an edge in the first tiebreaker (regulation and overtime wins).
But the Canadiens are not thinking that far ahead. They want to figure out what has gone wrong of late and fix it starting Tuesday in New Jersey, where a victory would leave Montreal a point won or lost by Toronto from clinching home ice in the first round.
"There's a lot of pride in this room, and I think that pride is what got us here in the first place, what we saw in the first 40 games," Canadiens center Lars Eller said. "That's going to show the next three games."
The real drop-off in the play of the Canadiens can be pinned to April 11, when they became the third team in the NHL to clinch a playoff spot with a 5-1 win at the Buffalo Sabres. Since then, Montreal lost 5-1 in Toronto, 7-3 at home to the Philadelphia Flyers, 6-4 at the Pittsburgh Penguins, won 3-2 at home against Tampa Bay on a last-minute goal by Brian Gionta, and lost 5-1 to the Washington Capitals at home Saturday.
"Our practices have been a little more sloppy," Bourque said. "Guys have, I don't know, I wouldn't say tuned out, but kind of taken our foot off the gas a little bit. We need to get back on there and make sure we're ready, because we can't change the way we play at the flick of a switch. It's going to take a little time, and it needs to start [Tuesday] night."
Coach Michel Therrien cancelled a planned day off Sunday to put his team through an intense, 75-minute practice, and there was a similar feel to the hour-long session Monday. He said he wanted to make sure his team understood what it's been doing wrong and what is needed in order for it to be fixed.
"This trip comes at the right time for us, honestly," Therrien said. "We just had two good practices where the players showed the right attitude, where we did a lot of teaching. We're leaving thinking we want to take these games one at a time, but we want to win these games. It's important that we start playing the solid hockey we're capable of playing."
Therrien had tinkered with his forward lines against Tampa Bay on Thursday and against Washington on Saturday, but he decided to go back to the combinations that had been working so well most of the season Sunday and Monday in practice. The problems have been more apparent among the defensemen, where the loss of Alexei Emelin to a torn ACL in his left knee April 6 has had a serious impact on how the pairings have been working.
Sunday, Therrien loaded up his top pairing with Andrei Markov and P.K. Subban, who haven't played together at even strength all season except for late in games when the Canadiens needed a goal. Then Monday, Markov was playing with Yannick Weber and Subban was with Francis Bouillon, giving a more balanced look with Josh Gorges and Raphael Diaz as the other pairing.
"We did some experiments the last two weeks with our forwards, with our defense," Therrien said. "There may be some other experiments coming this week, we're not sure. We're trying to balance as much as we can."
Balance has been one of Montreal's strengths all season, with offense coming from each of the top three lines, a defense that was collectively efficient, and goaltending that was solid. None of those groups was ever spectacular in any particular way but fit together to make a winning team.
That fit has been lost of late, and the challenge facing the Canadiens is to find it again over the final three games of the regular season.
"We just need to be confident going in to the playoffs," left wing Max Pacioretty said. "This is obviously some adversity we're dealing with. I can only speak for myself, but when I've been able to overcome adversity it's made me a better player.
"Hopefully our team can take the same route."
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