Canadiens' belief in themselves being put to the test

Wednesday, 01.27.2016 / 10:08 AM
Arpon Basu  - Managing Editor

MONTREAL -- Brendan Gallagher's voice can light up a room at times, his enthusiasm for the game and life in general shining through whenever he speaks.

This was not one of those times.

The Montreal Canadiens right wing and alternate captain was standing at his stall Tuesday attempting to answer question after question on how his team could lose on back-to-back nights to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who entered the home-and-home series with the worst record in the NHL.

The volume of his voice was barely higher than a whisper.

The Canadiens, or at least many of their fans, saw the two games as an opportunity to enter the All-Star break on a bit of a high, perhaps providing the momentum necessary to put this steep slide since the beginning of December behind them.

Instead, the opposite happened with the Canadiens losing both games by an identical 5-2 score.

There were many times over the course of a run that began Dec. 3 with a 3-2 loss at home to the Washington Capitals when it was worth wondering whether the Canadiens had hit rock bottom.

The loss Tuesday, the one that dropped their record to 5-18-1 since starting the season at 19-4-3, was probably that moment.

And now the Canadiens have five days to think about it.

"I would like to play tomorrow," Gallagher said, as he finally sat down after answering questions for about 10 minutes.

In a three-minute sample of Gallagher's media session, he used some derivative of the word "believe" 11 times.

"We all got to this point in our careers doing certain things well," Gallagher said. "Everyone believes in themselves. Nobody's lost belief in themselves, nobody's lost belief in this team or the structure. Dig down deep, find it from within and battle out of this together."

Gallagher was adamant the belief is still there, in spite of the Canadiens winning five games in nearly eight weeks, in spite of them going from an 11-point lead in the Atlantic Division to entering the break three points out of a spot in the Stanley Cup Playoffs.

The Canadiens have scored more than two goals five times in their past 24 games; they've allowed more than two goals 18 times in the same span. The belief Gallagher was talking about doesn't exactly shine through when center Tomas Plekanec attempted to explain that disparity.

"It seems like we have to work twice as hard to score one goal and they don't have to work as hard for them to score the goal," he said.

Whether that's true or not is irrelevant. If Plekanec and some of his teammates think that's the case, then that's not the kind of belief to which Gallagher was referring.

That's frustration talking, and the Canadiens have to attempt to do everything in their power to prevent it from taking hold of this team and driving it deeper into the ground. Considering how the past eight weeks have gone that is no easy task.

"Frustration gets you nowhere," Gallagher said. "There are natural emotions that as professional athletes you have to find a way to block out. It's not going to help. You can only think about things that will help you get out of it. Right now things aren't going well with us, but you have to believe the things that got us to this point will get us out of it."

There's that word again. Believe.

The Canadiens may say they have it right now, but there are some very clear signs that they in fact don't.

In many ways, the loss Tuesday to the Blue Jackets was a microcosm of what's been happening to the Canadiens for most of this month, if not the past two.

Captain Max Pacioretty leaving the game after taking a P.K. Subban slap shot in the face in the second period was a reflection of how injuries have helped derail the Canadiens season. Thankfully, Pacioretty should be fine. Meanwhile, the city of Montreal monitors the skating sessions injured goaltender Carey Price has at the Canadiens training facility every morning, wondering if he will play again this season.

The Canadiens went 1-for-6 on the power play, as the Blue Jackets took four straight minor penalties after taking a 3-1 lead at 10:40 of the second period. Montreal cashed in on one of them, the final one, after allowing the Blue Jackets to score on each of their two power plays in the first period.

The Canadiens power play has now gone 8-for-80 since Dec. 3 after starting the season 22-for-92. That's a drop from 23.9 percent to 10 percent, and is a big reason why the Canadiens are struggling to win games.

Then there was the fact the Canadiens made crucial mistakes leading to the first four Blue Jackets goals. Defenseman Jeff Petry lost a puck battle on Boone Jenner's power-play goal that opened the scoring, defenseman Andrei Markov gave the puck away on Scott Hartnell's power-play goal that made it 2-0 and Subban accepted responsibility for turnovers that led to Columbus' third and fourth goals.

The point is the Canadiens paid for their mistakes with goals in their net and the Blue Jackets didn't, which is what Plekanec was referring to, and which has become the common theme of these Montreal losses that are piling up.

Amid all that, the Canadiens have to try to believe.

"Can we turn it around? Of course we can. I don't think there's any question of that," Subban said. "I think we're doing a lot of things well, but every game there's these mental lapses that cost us. Today it was me. I've got to be better than that, regardless. It doesn't matter. I can't give up those types of scoring opportunities to the other team."

Subban will be attending the 2016 Honda NHL All-Star Game in Nashville as the Canadiens lone representative. There has never been any question about Subban's confidence, but what does remain in question is what impact the break will have on his teammates and their confidence. Their belief.

The answer to that question could very well determine the Canadiens fate this season, one that began with such promise but has spiraled into the realm of severe doubt.

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