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Habs hope to avoid negative momentum against Panthers

Montreal Canadiens head coach Michel Therrien watches from behind the bench during third period NHL hockey action against the Toronto Maple Leafs in Montreal, January 19, 2013.

CHRISTINNE MUSCHI/REUTERS

It's January, and cold out, so the snowball metaphor seems appropriate.

You can think of the opening few days of the Montreal Canadiens' season as a patch the white stuff (yeah, yeah, it's too cold for proper snowball weather, but stick with us): Saturday's loss to the Maple Leafs saw a tiny snowball get bigger, a loss to the Florida Panthers on Tuesday and it will start hurtling downhill a little more quickly.

That's just how life looks when you're coming off a 28th-place finish in the 30-team NHL.

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Habs centre David Desharnais acknowledged as much after practice on Monday, saying "(last season is) not something you can dwell on, but it's there. If we win that first game at home, maybe the snowball's rolling the other direction."

Now, you don't get to where Desharnais is by being ravaged by insecurity and self-doubt, it would be ridiculous to suggest he or anyone else in the Habs' room is gripped by a sense of panic or stress.

But there is annoyance, perhaps it's as simple as being convinced they are a way better team than they showed on Saturday. Maybe some of it has to do with the belief that has set in - and this is true of all teams - that time is of the essence in a 48-game schedule in a way that it isn't in an 82-game one.

The Habs have been emphasizing the importance of a strong start to the season, the benefit of that mindset is belief builds quickly if you pull it off. The downside? Well, there is such a thing as negative momentum - the snowball can squish you flat, as the Habs learned last season.

It may only be the second game of the regular schedule but the psychological and emotional battle has been joined, and it's going to be more fretful on teams like Montreal, outfits with brittle confidence who are trying to recover from disastrous seasons.

An NHL schedule has its own internal rhythm - this may be a shortened season, the grind is still a grind - and time can sometimes seem compressed.

Defenceman Josh Gorges said the challenge now, as it will be in the coming weeks, is to not get too caught up, to be patient and focused.

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"It's a matter of how we respond . . . okay, we lost, now let's get back to work," he said. "We know what we did wrong and how to fix it."

If the players needed a reminder that must happen quickly, they got it on Monday, their first practice since the Leafs game.

Coach Michel Therrien worked his charges hard, and at the end of the 75-minute session presided a series of lung-busting stop-and-go windsprints, one of which involved skating from red-line to blue-line, diving onto your stomach, getting back up and skating back.

It was no biggie for a bunch of highly-conditioned athletes who have been dying to get back on the ice since the lockout was declared in mid-September.

But the practice did reveal a tiny flash of Therrien's flinty side: the Habs have been together as a team for eight days, and already he's doling out punishments.

Third-line centre Lars Eller was relegated to playing with the scrubs after a turnover-filled performance on Saturday (replaced as third-line centre during practice by rookie Alex Galchenyuk).

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After the session, Therrien said he's still getting to know his players - and vice versa - and that he was merely tinkering with new combinations and looks to his lineup.

Since he was hired to replace interim coach Randy Cunneyworth last spring, Therrien has repeated that he is a mellower, wiser version of the combustible bench boss he once was.

It seems outrageous to say this so early in the season, but here goes anyway: another loss or two this week will put that assertion to a very stern test.

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About the Author
National Correspondent

Sean Gordon joined the Globe's Quebec bureau in 2008 and covers the Canadiens, Alouettes and Impact, as well as Quebec's contingent of Olympic athletes. More

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