NEWARK, N.J. – Following the Montreal Canadiens' 3-2 loss Tuesday to the New Jersey Devils, a team that was eliminated from contention for the Stanley Cup Playoffs two days earlier, Rene Bourque encapsulated his team's abject play over the past 10 days with a defeated tone in his voice.
"I hate to keep saying it," Bourque said, "but we have to get our [game] together. Since then, we've been God-awful."
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The Canadiens clinched a playoff berth on April 11 with a 5-1 victory against the Buffalo Sabres. But with the Northeast Division title there for the taking, the Canadiens have lost five of six and been outscored 26-12 in those losses thanks to a mix of poor defense, putrid penalty killing and a parade of slow starts.
All three of those problematic traits were on display against the Devils at Prudential Center.
The Canadiens were on their heels throughout the first period, and eventually their dangerous living turned into a pair of goals from Patrik Elias and Jacob Josefson. Elias scored by slicing through a disorganized defense and taking a pass from Travis Zajac at the top of the attacking zone and snapping a shot past goaltender Carey Price for a power-play goal to make it 1-0.
Less than four minutes later, Josefson was the beneficiary of some miscommunication by the Canadiens in their own zone and scored from the right post off a quick feed from Dainius Zubrus to make it 2-0.
"This is five or six now where we came out flat and got down early," Bourque said before addressing the team's hunger during this slump with the postseason approaching. "We're not getting back enough, especially in the offensive zone. We're not winning our battles. We're not recovering it off the forecheck like we were before. We just don't have that support. We're out of position. We're hesitating.
"It's not going our way."
Things continued to go against the Canadiens with Brandon Prust in the penalty box early in the second period for the first of two goaltender interference penalties in the game. Devils forward Steve Sullivan glided through the middle of the offensive zone and redirected a slap pass from Marek Zidlicky that put the Devils ahead 3-0 and left the Canadiens with an uphill battle the rest of the night.
Sullivan's power-play goal marked the sixth consecutive game in which the Canadiens penalty-killers were beaten. Over that stretch, opponents are 10-for-24 against the Canadiens with the man advantage.
Canadiens forward Colby Armstrong returned from a knee injury that sidelined him since April 1, but his presence on the penalty kill did not help. He was on the ice for the goals by Elias and Sullivan.
"We have to do such a much better job on the penalty kill," coach Michel Therrien said. "We have to be more aggressive and more smart. Right now, we don't make the right decisions. We get caught out of position. And it's not just tonight – it's been the last 10 days."
Therrien said Tuesday morning that Price needs to be the team's best player down the stretch, but he was hardly the culprit on the goals he allowed against the Devils. Elias had a partial breakaway, Josefson was left alone on the doorstep, and Sullivan tipped home a cross-ice pass. Price, however, didn't blame the chaos happening around him for the goals.
"It's not my job to worry about that," Price said. "My job is to stop pucks and give us an opportunity win hockey games. I was just trying to battle through everything and put an honest effort forth and hope for the best. I was trying to get the battle level up. Tonight, we didn't win the hockey game, but I thought we took big strides forward as a team."
The three-goal deficit appeared to sharpen the Canadiens' focus over the final 30 minutes. Goals by Max Pacioretty and Lars Eller during the second period turned a runaway laugher into a tight game in the third period, but the Canadiens were like a six-foot man trying to climb out of a seven-foot hole – they scratched and clawed, but they couldn't pull themselves back to level ground.
"We're a little low on confidence right now as a team. That means people are hesitating a little bit. We're not working together. There's a little doubt. There's so many things we need to do better I could point out probably 10 more things. But it starts with each and every individual. We have to be better. We've got to find a way to get through it, plain and simple." -- Canadiens forward Lars Eller on the team's recent slump
The loss was the latest missed opportunity for the Canadiens to seize control of the division and grab the second seed in the Eastern Conference. The Boston Bruins lost 5-2 to the Philadelphia Flyers on Tuesday night, but remain in first place in the division despite a 1-4-1 mark in their past six games.
Some believe momentum is important heading into the postseason; others say the playoffs provide a clean slate and the regular season has no meaning. For Bourque, what matters most is the Canadiens repeating their mistakes during the past two weeks with the playoffs a week away.
"It's definitely a big concern," Bourque said. "It's what we've been working on the last few days – forecheck, our neutral-zone forecheck, getting the puck, attacking in transition."
Eller wasn't sure if the team began to sag as a result of clinching a playoff berth, but there has been a snowball effect with the losses and it has transformed a once-confident team that was constantly pressuring opponents into one that is unsure of itself and desperately needs something to go their way.
"Of course, when you're losing, the attitude … I think we have a good attitude," Eller said, transitioning away from a negative thought to a more positive one. "We wish to do well, but right now we need a little boost to get over that feeling and get our confidence back as a team. We're a little low on confidence right now as a team. That means people are hesitating a little bit. We're not working together. There's a little doubt.
"There's so many things we need to do better I could point out probably 10 more things. But it starts with each and every individual. We have to be better. We've got to find a way to get through it, plain and simple."