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No quick remedy for what ails the Montreal Canadiens

Montreal Canadiens forward Max Pacioretty reacts at the end of the game against the Buffalo Sabres, a loss that was just the latest in a string of dispiriting defeats for the team.

Eric Bolte/USA Today Sports

An NHL dressing room is a different place after a loss. There's an almost visible pall hanging over the stalls. Mausoleums are livelier.

To wit: After a dispiriting loss this week to bottom-feeders Buffalo – a game Montreal led in the third period – the Canadiens' opulent inner sanctum was a mournful, semi-deserted space.

"If we were getting blown out every night, it would almost be easier … but we're right there in games, we're just crumbling. It's an extremely deflating way to lose," winger Dale Weise said softly.

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As the losses have mounted, the Canadiens have gone through what you might call the five stages of slump-ology: bravado, denial, white-hot anger, grim resolve, relentless positivism.

But losing is a grind, and there comes a point where there's no use hiding it.

"Usually after a couple of losses or bad games you can go home and forget about it. But this? This you can't forget," said Weise, before sighing and adding, "we've got to try and get some traction somehow."

You'll note resignation and acceptance are not among the steps.

After a day off Thursday, the Habs were back on the ice ahead of weekend matinées against Edmonton and Carolina.

The atmosphere had lifted, as it must. Maybe it had to do with seeing injured goalie Carey Price gingerly skating around with a blocker and trapper before practice.

"When I was about 8 or 9 years old, I had a minor-hockey coach who had the two-hour rule. You can think about the game and stew over it and be angry for two hours. Then you have to let it go," said Habs winger Brendan Gallagher, whose granite expression after Buffalo won was hard enough to splinter every stick in the room.

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Nearby, defenceman P.K. Subban was talking about mounting a late playoff push. He did this with a straight face.

"We start winning a couple of games and people start realizing we're not giving up … as long as we have a chance, we're going to keep fighting," he said.

The Habs' players and coaches are searching for answers – perhaps even more furiously than the comment-section and call-in-show GMs – but there are no simple fixes for inopportune mental errors and fragile confidence.

That's the maddening part.

As to what the team should do in the immediate term, the value-maximizing answer is: nothing.

True, the Habs' ugly 5-20-1 slide has exposed structural frailties and organizational shortcomings.

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This team is simply not strong enough at centre, or dangerous enough on the wings, or deep enough in net or on the blueline to mount a serious championship challenge.

The talent pipeline from the minors flows intermittently, the style they play is too predictable – anyone who doubts this should watch the Habs attempt to deal with a two-man fore-check – and has relied too heavily on Price's elite goaltending.

It's also true general manager Marc Bergevin has had a down year. His off-season acquisitions have been busts, with the exception of defenceman Mark Barberio. His signing 33-year-old centre Tomas Plekanec to a two-year extension was not a canny move.

But you can't legislate for injuries and externalities such as Plekanec's precipitous decline (his production has cratered since December: seven points in 21 games). It's hard to plan ahead for defenceman Jeff Petry completely losing his bearings in the defensive zone. Or for David Desharnais's playmaking skills to more or less totally evaporate (seven points in his past 26).

Any argument that the parts required to fix the Habs can be added in midseason is pure fantasy. It might be possible to have a minor clear-out at the trade deadline but renovation season arrives in the summer, with the new salary cap number.

That's when it will be easiest to move out expensive, under-performing pieces such as Plekanec or defenceman Alexei Emelin (two more years at $4.1-million) And if the Habs were to flatline for the rest of the season, Bergevin would have the flexibility of drafting a high-powered offensive prospect or using a lottery pick as a trade chip.

As for firing his coach to spur a playoff push? That assumes the organization wants to win now. No one is talking about tanking and never will, but again, a bottom-five finish is the benefit-maximizing play.

Rumours abound the club is meeting with potential successors to coach Michel Therrien, and while it's possible he gets the chop in the coming days (Bergevin's loyalty has its limits) there's really no point in firing him until a permanent successor is lined up – an easier task after the season.

Therrien pushed the collective-indignation needle into the red this week when he said, "It's going to be very hard to make the playoffs."

He was merely speaking the truth. The Habs' playoff hopes essentially died when they lost back-to-back games to Columbus before the all-star break.

Besides, past practice in Montreal shows acknowledging won't get you fired, but admitting to being out of ideas will.

Therrien still has a few of those. Asked on Friday if he's pretty much exhausted his line combinations, the well-known tinkerer laughed and said, "Uh, no."

The 52-year-old doesn't look as if he's a guy who's worried about his future (not that he'd give anyone the satisfaction of knowing if he were).

It's probably because he understands the Habs aren't really this bad.

They are an elite possession team with beer-league shooting efficiency and a propensity for poorly timed brain cramps.

Panicking about it won't help.

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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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