MONTREAL — The Montreal Canadiens have 40 games left this season to find an identity.
The pre-season narrative about this team was that they were on the verge of establishing themselves as Stanley Cup contenders.
Carey Price was crowned the world’s best goaltender at the NHL awards in June, defenceman P.K. Subban had been nominated for another Norris Trophy after taking home the honour in 2013, and forward Max Pacioretty had come off a 37-goal season and led the Canadiens in playoff goals before being named captain in the fall. All three of them had stepped into their prime together.
The maturation of Alex Galchenyuk was to take shape before our eyes with his official move to the centre position; the position in which he played his junior hockey before the Canadiens made him the third overall pick of the 2012 Draft.
The veteran savvy of defencemen Andrei Markov and Jeff Petry and the experience and depth of their bottom six forwards — guys like David Desharnais, Tomas Fleischmann, Dale Weise, Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn — would get Montreal to the next level.
And then there was that comment from Subban about how he had never been a part of such a tight team at any level of hockey, uttered upon his arrival at training camp.
The Canadiens bought the hype throughout the best start to a season they had ever recorded.
“We won nine games in a row, and maybe we listened to people and thought we were as good as everyone thought,” said Pacioretty Wednesday.
But losing 10 of 11 games from Dec. 3 to Dec 26 brought some humility to the Canadiens and shattered the narrative that they can compete with the Chicago’s and Washington’s of the hockey world.
“A lot of stuff was not going our way,” said Pacioretty. “It’s not an excuse, we had a lot of injuries, but we just didn’t have that extra fire, that confidence to come out with a win.”
How does confidence evaporate so quickly?
Price’s injury in the Edmonton game would reveal what kind of resolve the Canadiens had. They were deprived of his services for nine games from Oct. 30 to Nov. 20 and went 5-2-2 in his absence.
But when Price went down again after rattling off three straight wins, the Canadiens came so easily undone. Brendan Gallagher’s five-week absence was a factor in the team’s struggles as well.
Throughout these most trying times, Canadiens coach Michel Therrien insisted the adversity his team faced would only make it stronger.
The evidence through three games in January isn’t supporting the claim.
The team’s bipolarity hadn’t been more apparent than in back-to-back one-goal games Tuesday and Wednesday after their 5-1 win over the Bruins in the Winter Classic on Jan. 1.
The first was a 4-3 loss to Philadelphia that, if not for Canadiens goaltender Ben Scrivens, would’ve been so much worse.
“Unacceptable,” is how Pacioretty referred to it after he and his teammates went through the motions without any sign of engagement in the task at hand. They were beat in nearly every category, from the score to the shot count to the loose-puck battles.
A night later, Canadiens goaltender Mike Condon had very little to do with a 2-1 over the New Jersey Devils. His team allowed only 20 shots and notched several quality scoring chances on the 25 shots they took. Every line was into it, with first-liners Plekanec and Pacioretty hooking up for a goal on the power play and fourth-liners Paul Byron and Mitchell hooking up for the winning goal on the penalty kill.
“We all felt guilty, I believe,” said Canadiens coach Michel Therrien.
But the guilt has been expunged, and we’re no closer to discovering who these Canadiens actually are.
They have 40 games left to show they can be the contenders they appeared to be at the beginning of the season, 40 games to show if the adversity hardened or crippled them.