Stubbs: The heat is on after Habs’ worst game of season

 

 
 
 
 
Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien looks on from the bench with players, from left, Max Pacioretty, Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher, Daniel Brière, Tomas Plekanec and Travis Moen during third period NHL hockey action against the Washington Capitals.
 

Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien looks on from the bench with players, from left, Max Pacioretty, Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher, Daniel Brière, Tomas Plekanec and Travis Moen during third period NHL hockey action against the Washington Capitals.

Photograph by: Graham Hughes, THE CANADIAN PRESS

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MONTREAL — Normally, it’s assistant equipment manager Pierre Ouellette who runs the Canadiens’ industrial-size washers and dryers at the team’s two arenas.

But the veteran Steamer, as he’s known, might have had a lighter load at the Bell Centre Saturday, Habs players having taken nearly 15 minutes following their 5-0 clobbering by the Washington Capitals to air their own dirty laundry — and there’s a lot of it — behind closed dressing-room doors.

This was the second time I can remember a lengthy Canadiens’ players-only post-game meeting, violating NHL regulations that their room be open to the media five minutes after the last player has left the ice.

The first time was Feb. 9, 2009, in Calgary following a 6-2 drubbing by the Flames, then-captain Saku Koivu shutting the doors at the Saddledome for 32 minutes following the final siren with his team having lost eight of its past 10.

At Koivu’s command after that loud meeting, every player was in his stall when the doors finally opened. On Saturday, all were seated at management’s request, presumably for the sake of being accountable.

I can still see the numb look on rookie Max Pacioretty’s face that centennial-season night in Calgary, staring blankly at nothing at all, not even a skatelace untied.

(Coach Guy Carbonneau took his club bowling in Edmonton the next day as shock therapy, the Habs then losing 7-2 to the Oilers. A month later, then-GM Bob Gainey turfed Carbonneau — five months after having signed his old friend and former teammate to a three-year contract extension.)

This season’s Canadiens are currently, to be charitable, a dog’s breakfast. And even Fido might turn his snout up at this plate.

A visit to the Bell Centre was just the tonic for the Capitals, who arrived riding a seven-game losing streak and left having looked, comparatively, like a Stanley Cup contender.

The Canadiens were generous hosts, giving up the season’s first goals to three Caps while themselves staging a reprise of the 1968 zombie film Night of the Living Dead.

The Habs were outshot, outchanced, outhustled and outskated in what centre David Desharnais would quite properly call the team’s by-far worst game of the season, the club’s fourth straight regulation loss — not even a loser’s point as consolation — and the Capitals’ seventh straight win at the Bell Centre.

It was the second time in three games that Canadiens goalie Carey Price was mercifully pulled by head coach Michel Therrien, a rudderless lineup in front of him throwing him a cement life raft.

For the sixth consecutive game, the Canadiens yielded four or more goals. Price would like a couple back, but he’s on a locket-size list of those who have been playing like a pro.

Therrien, looking roughly the hue of ash, would hit a grand slam of understatement in his post-game autopsy Saturday when he suggested this was a “tough night, disappointing night,” adding there was “nothing good to take from that game. We’re going to move on.”

Which they did, into a dark and stormy night with their fans’ spontaneous combustion lighting their path.

(Almost never during the regular season do photographers attend the post-game briefings of Therrien, who speaks to TV cameras and the recorders and notebooks of reporters. There is little photogenic about a man at a microphone. But with the coach being fitted by many in this city for the guillotine, at least one camera’s motor-drive was firing loudly during his remarks, a photographer recording for posterity, well, you connect the dots.)

The ninth career shutout of Capitals goalie Braden Holtby, who’s a perfect 5-0 lifetime vs. the Canadiens, might have been his easiest since house league. The Habs finished with 21 shots, but for a time had us scrambling for our record books to research franchise futility, the twice-achieved 12-shot embarrassments of 2002 and 2006 ultimately unchallenged.

Daniel Brière practically brought the roof down 12:44 into the second period, the crowd bellowing “On veut un tir!” (“We want a shot!”) when his harmless 40-foot wrister found the elusive target, the Habs trailing 24-3 in shots and 4-0 on the scoreboard at that point.

“That was probably the biggest cheer I’ve ever gotten from making a save,” Holtby would joke.

It was unclear whether it was the ovation or the puck hitting him that woke him up.

The Canadiens did, in fact, lead the Capitals in a few statistical categories:

They had 20 of their shots blocked, next to the Caps’ 16;

They outhit their visitors 29-8 (but of course you’re not the one doing the hitting when you’re hogging the puck and thoroughly dominating the offence);

They held a 59-41 per cent edge in faceoffs;

They won, maybe by split decision, the game’s single fight, Brandon Prust dropping his gloves 1:49 into the first period with Caps rookie forward Tom Wilson in what ultimately was a futile effort to light a fire under the Habs’ butts.

Both Price and Prust attended a Montreal Auto Show promotion on Sunday, the Capitals’ tire treads thankfully washed off.

There has been a growing uproar among Canadiens fans for the firing of Therrien; there is at least one website devoted solely to that goal.

Fans have traded every player, second-guessed every decision by the coach and his boss, general manager Marc Bergevin, and called out owner Geoff Molson for not having thrown a lightning bolt from the Bell Centre’s highest office.

That is a fan’s prerogative, and no one denies them that right. Indeed, no player in Saturday’s dressing room criticized the heckling they had just absorbed in their own building.

But Molson has complete faith in Bergevin, who in turn will not run his hockey-operations department with his finger poised on a panic button during a long-term campaign to rebuild a franchise that has withered from years of bad management and is going on 21 years since its most recent championship.

With the team having pedalled its bicycle down a freshly tarred road, its wheels grinding to a gooey stop, do fans think Bergevin would today be trading from a position of strength? Do they believe 29 other GMs wouldn’t smell blood in the water, realizing Bergevin’s frantic urgency to move bodies in and out of Montreal?

There is no quick, finger-snap fix at hand.

Have some of Therrien’s line combinations and defensive pairings and player usage and benchings been questionable with gusts to disastrous? Absolutely.

Have there been many games when too many players have seemingly sleepwalked from faceoff to final siren, then sat in the dressing room and curiously wondered aloud — when they’ve been there to face the music — that they don’t know why this has happened? Absolutely.

Would Bergevin himself like to revisit a few of his acquisitions and signings, which he has made based on hard data and intuition? Absolutely.

Does any of this change the tangled mess in which the Canadiens find themselves today? No, it does not.

Predictably, there is not one player on this club who will tell you they have quit on Therrien in a bid to have him sacked. All say they believe in the head coach, his assistants, the system and the organization.

Recent numbers tell a gruesome story: the Canadiens have been outscored 19-5 during their four-game losing streak; they have been outscored 2-to-1 at even strength in the 21 games back to Dec. 10, when they were 6-0 cannon-fodder at home for Los Angeles.

For now, the beleaguered Price tries to keep a stiff upper lip as his team sags badly in front of him.

“We need to tackle this problem as a team. Doing things individually is what got us to this point, so this was a good step,” the Olympic-bound goalie told reporters Saturday of the closed-door meeting.

The next step comes Monday at Brossard with an 11 a.m. practice, when the rally begins or the meltdown continues — depending on your point of view.

dstubbs@montrealgazette.com

Twitter: Dave_Stubbs

 
 
 
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Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien looks on from the bench with players, from left, Max Pacioretty, Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher, Daniel Brière, Tomas Plekanec and Travis Moen during third period NHL hockey action against the Washington Capitals.
 

Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien looks on from the bench with players, from left, Max Pacioretty, Michael Bournival, Brendan Gallagher, Daniel Brière, Tomas Plekanec and Travis Moen during third period NHL hockey action against the Washington Capitals.

Photograph by: Graham Hughes, THE CANADIAN PRESS

 
 
 
 
 
 
 
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