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Canadiens face crucial weekend at Pens, Leafs

by Arpon Basu
BROSSARD, Que. – A Montreal Canadiens season that got off to the worst start in franchise history may be on the verge of coming to a premature end this weekend.

While the Canadiens would not be mathematically eliminated from playoff contention should they lose Friday night in Pittsburgh or Saturday night in Toronto, it would require a near-miraculous turnaround to book a fifth straight trip to the postseason should they come home with anything less than four points -- and the Canadiens know it.

"There's a lot of urgency because those teams that are in the final spots are the ones we're chasing," goaltender Carey Price said after practice Thursday. "If we're losing to those guys it means we're moving farther away, so these games are really crucial for us."


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The Habs already lost one of those four-point games Wednesday night when they fell 3-0 to the Washington Capitals, thanks in large part to an 0-for-7 performance on the power play --  further cementing Montreal's spot in the League basement for power-play efficiency.

"We all realized the importance of the game and I think that's why we were so disappointed afterwards," Price said. "We just dug ourselves that much deeper."

The Canadiens enter Friday in 13th place in the Eastern Conference, 10 points out of the eighth and final playoff spot. With 36 games left on the schedule and considering how difficult it is to make up ground in today's NHL, beating the sixth-place Penguins and the ninth-place Maple Leafs appears to be a bare minimum for mounting any kind of late charge.

Since the current conference-based playoff format was introduced in 1993-94, the largest point deficit overcome to reach the playoffs (i.e., behind the No. 8 team) is 12 points by the 1993-94 New York Islanders. Since the introduction of the shootout in 2005-06, the biggest deficit overcome is 11 points by San Jose in 2005-06 and St. Louis in 2008-09, followed by the 10-point comeback by the Washington Capitals in 2007-08 and the Buffalo Sabres last season.

The Canadiens know time is running out on them.

"We have to win. We can all count the points and the number of games we have left to play, so it's right there," center Tomas Plekanec said. "We need to win almost 80 percent of the games, or something like that. You obviously try not to look too far ahead, you know your schedule, you see what's right in front of you. There have been a lot of good (winning) streaks. It's got to start somehow."

The fact Montreal finds itself in this desperate situation prior to the All-Star break is a continuation of what has been a series of strange happenings surrounding the Canadiens this season.

First there was the ongoing saga of top defenseman Andrei Markov. Re-signed by general manager Pierre Gauthier to a three-year, $17.25 million contract while still recovering from a second ACL surgery on his right knee in a span of eight months, the apparent imminence of Markov's return to the lineup has been a distraction all season.

First Gauthier said he hoped Markov would play in the season-opener, then he said Markov would only miss a few games and then he was expected back on a West Coast road trip in early December. While on that road trip, as his teammates flew to San Jose, Markov stayed behind in Los Angeles to visit the renowned Kerlan-Jobe Orthopaedic Clinic, where it was determined he would require arthroscopic surgery to clean out some debris in the knee, extending his convalescence another three weeks at a minimum. His return then was pushed back until after the upcoming All-Star break -- and this week interim coach Randy Cunneyworth confirmed Markov has not yet resumed skating, so even that target appears unrealistic at this point.

The season has also seen a lot of changes in personnel, and all could probably be linked to Montreal's struggles on the power play, which are inextricably linked to Markov's absence.

Assistant coach Perry Pearn, who was responsible for both of Montreal's special teams, was suddenly let go by Gauthier 90 minutes before a home game Oct. 26 -- despite the objections of then-coach Jacques Martin. In turn, Martin suffered the same fate just before the morning skate for another home game Dec. 17. Sniper Michael Cammalleri was pulled out of a one-goal game in Boston during the second intermission last Thursday because he'd been traded to Calgary.
"We have to win. We can all count the points and the number of games we have left to play, so it's right there.  We need to win almost 80 percent of the games, or something like that. You obviously try not to look too far ahead, you know your schedule, you see what's right in front of you. There have been a lot of good (winning) streaks. It's got to start somehow." -- Tomas Plekanec

All of that has led the Canadiens to this weekend and two games they can ill afford to lose. Fixing the power play would be a good place to start.

Montreal has gone 2-for-26 with the extra man during its last eight games and sits last in the NHL with a 12.3 percent efficiency rating -- a far cry from the last two seasons where the Canadiens finished seventh and second in the League on the power play.

With a 7-8-8 record in one-goal games, it would not be a stretch to believe that if the power play had performed the way it had in the first two years under Martin, the situation the Canadiens find themselves in now could very well have been avoided.

"It's definitely one of the biggest reasons," Plekanec said. "We talk about it every other day, that special teams are a big key. I think we have a great PK, the penalty killing has been awesome for us, but the power play's not there. It's just so obvious that if we got a small percentage (increase) in goals on the power play the games would be so different. It's not an excuse, but a lot of points are right there on the power play and we didn't get that at all."

Plekanec believes the Canadiens' power-play woes are more mental than anything else. He pointed to poor decision-making as the main reason they are unable to score, and he also suggested that not everyone is pulling in the same direction when Montreal gets a man advantage.

"Predictable? First we need to figure out what we want to do," Plekanec said when asked if opposing teams know what's coming on the power play. "We talk about what we want to do, but when we jump in there we're not executing the plays that we want to. Like I said, it's the decision-making on those plays. You can have all those things where you say, ‘You stand here, you stand there, you shoot the puck, you make a pass.' But you have to (make a) read, you have to make those plays, you have to find a seam to be open for that pass or make that pass. All those things need to be together and we don't have it."

The Canadiens don't have very much time left to find it, either. This weekend would be a wonderful time for that to happen -- or else it all risks becoming irrelevant in a hurry.

"We are what we are right now, and we've put ourselves there," Cunneyworth said. "That kind of pressure isn't a bad thing; it's about going out there and giving everything you have. There's pressure every night, but obviously it's heightened by the situation we're in. We can't be saving anything for a later date. This becomes our most important game of the season."
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