The Canadiens were soundly beaten by the Ottawa Senators in the Corel Centre tonight by a score of 5-2. What many had called a team that was assured a playoff spot now sees itself looking over its shoulder at the rapidly advancing Buffalo Sabres and have to be wondering what’s gone wrong.
In a word: effort.
It’s not like the game was a complete disaster, because there were stretches where the Habs looked like they were interested in playing hockey, and indeed some stretches where they looked the better club. However, the inspired 60-minute games that the team had been playing during their solid stretch right after the Holiday break are seemingly a thing of the past, replaced now by a team that struggles to show any conviction for long periods of time.
The first period, while decent, will never be considered amongst Montreal’s best this year. Certainly they kept the Senators off the score-sheet until the final moments of the period, but it wasn’t because they’d played the perfect first, more than they’d held on.
They could have come out completely unscathed had Jose Theodore brought his ‘A’ game… or even his ‘B’ or ‘C’ games. However the Zdeno Chara shot from five feet inside the blueline whistled merrily past Theodore’s ear with under a minute left in the frame surely left the team with a sour taste in its mouth going to intermission; certainly Theodore will have nightmares about it.
The second was easily the best period for the Canadiens, but unfortunately instead of going into the third up by a goal, they found themselves down by one against a very tough defensive club.
Some nifty work by Niklas Sundstrom behind the Ottawa net eventually saw a puck deflecting off Patrick Lalime on a wraparound attempt across the face of the crease. Steve Begin, in the right place at the right time, corralled the puck out of the air, took a series of whacks, and was subsequently awarded the tying goal at the 9:00 mark of the period.
Just short of six minutes later, Theodore whiffed on another shot as Wade Redden deflected a puck high in the slot towards goal. The puck arrived at the net without much pace, and while it came through two sets of legs, replays showed ample time for Theo to have followed the puck to make the save. The audible thump was the sound of the Canadiens spirits hitting the floor on yet another poor goal from their All-Star goalie.
Of course, the Habs didn’t help themselves much at all in the offensive zone. Michael Ryder once and Sundstrom twice missed open nets. In Ryder’s defence, his puck was slightly bouncing, and for Sundstrom, perhaps it was just a case of being on the checking line for so long.
The Canadiens turned in what’s become a typical performance in the third period, allowing the game to completely fall out of reach with a complete lack of effort. Less than two minutes in, Bryan Smolinski, again just a few feet inside the blueline, let fly with a shot that somehow eluded Theo. The fact he was down on his knees as the puck was struck surely didn’t help when the puck sailed sweetly into the upper glove-side corner.
Laziness and a lack of communication resulted in the third goal. A puck cleared around the boards was saw two Habs moving in the general vicinity, but both Saku Koivu and Ryder went in weakly, allowing the Senators to recover and get a shot on goal. While the save was made, Andrei Markov decided to play baseball and struck out instead of tie up his opponent and Jason Spezza knocked home the Sens fourth.
All was not lost, however, as two of the hardest workers combined, on the penalty kill no less, to provide the Canadiens with one last hurrah. Winning a battle along the boards, Jason Ward spotted a streaking Begin, and the latter tore away on a breakaway. Making no pretence of a deke, Begin slotted the puck between the wickets to bring the Habs within two.
A late Marian Hossa penalty gave the Canadiens just the opportunity they were looking for, and pulling Mathieu Garon – who’d mercifully replaced Theo earlier in the period – they found themselves with a six on four situation in the final moments.
Once again, weak play prevailed as, on a shoot-in, the outnumbered Senators easily out-worked the Canadiens for the puck. Somehow Mike Ribeiro and Richard Zednik found this moment of the game too riveting to actually retrieve the puck which eventually found itself, courtesy of Shawn Van Allen, sitting pretty in the Montreal goal again.
A dilemma is waiting for Claude Julien at his desk tomorrow morning: despite removing Pierre Dagenais and Yanic Perreault for lazy play, he still finds himself with a team not giving full effort. Who does he pull next? Who does he put in as replacement?
Can he get things turned around?