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Habs hope worst is behind them

Atlanta Thrashers' Bryan Little hits Montreal Canadiens' Mathieu Darche (R) during the third period of NHL hockey action in Montreal January 2, 2011.


Perhaps the most vivid way to view a losing streak from an NHL player's perspective is as an annual bout of flu - unpleasant, dispiriting, and, one hopes, temporary.

Listen to players, and some of the symptoms even sound proximate: lethargy, sleeplessness, irritability, food tastes differently.

"You walk out after games in a terrible mood, you wake up cranky, it's draining emotionally, which also makes it hard physically. And it's worse when you're on the road," is how Montreal Canadiens forward Mathieu Darche put it.

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The Habs went on a dismal 2-5 holiday season road trip and have emerged as winners in just three of their past 12 games. Only the New Jersey Devils, the league's cellar-dwellers, have been worse over the same span.

But like a recovering patient, the Canadiens are starting to get the feeling that the worst of it is behind them - to stick with the theme, the Devils are probably due a lengthy hospital stay, but that's another story.

Though the Habs players are clearly out of sorts over their recent run of form, they are merely the latest victims of a bug that infects all dressing rooms at some point during an 82-game season.

In HBO's fly-on-the-wall documentary 24/7, Washington Capitals coach Bruce Boudreau philosophized in the midst of an eight-game losing string that the current Stanley Cup champion Chicago Blackhawks lost nine straight in their championship season.

"The key is how long it takes you to come out of it, and how you use it [going forward]" said Darche, a 34-year-old veteran of 10 pro seasons. "It's also the kind of thing that usually leads to a lot more bickering in the room, but that hasn't really happened in here this time. We've been through it before."

Last weekend's overtime loss to the Atlanta Thrashers, themselves mired in a relative dry spell, was a step forward for the Canadiens, who are entering what might be termed an important, if not crucial, series of games.

Goaltender Carey Price, whose play has sagged along with his team's win-loss record - to add insult to injury it was announced on Tuesday he lost out to Pittsburgh's Marc-André Fleury in all-star voting - said a lighter January schedule that sees them play only four road games should help put things right.

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"It's a lot better to sit in your own house doing whatever … instead of sitting on a hotel bed watching television all day," said the 23-year-old.

Price is 2-7-1 since Dec. 10 and said after Sunday's defeat that "I have to play better." He allowed that his league-high 36 starts have taken a physical and mental toll, and that he hasn't had as much time as he'd like in recent weeks to work on the nuances of his game in practice - the Habs played 15 games in December, but have four fewer on the schedule this month.

"You need that time to spend to do little things, it's kind of essential. I never thought that before, but it's a big part of the game," Price said. "Like plays around the crease. It can be an adjustment of as little as six inches. You could be six inches deep, and that can make six inches in the corner open up … it can be a big difference in a game."

And so begins a stretch of games that could help determine whether the Habs look ahead to spring with home-ice advantage on their minds or whether the road to the playoffs will require the late-season scrambling of the past two seasons.

The Canadiens' next five games are against conference opponents, all of whom are ahead in the standings.

First up on Thursday are the Pittsburgh Penguins, who had a 2-5-1 stretch before ripping off a 15-game unbeaten run.

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After that comes a Saturday tilt against Boston (who have had a pair of 1-3-1 slides) and a re-match with the Pens that splits a home-and-home series next week against the New York Rangers (who are trying to avoid their first three-loss string of the season on Wednesday against Carolina).

"We know we've got some good teams coming … we just have to stick to the game plan and execute," said defenceman P.K. Subban.

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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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