Canadiens off to familiarly sluggish start to 2018

Timo Meier scored twice with one being an empty net goal as the San Jose Sharks beat the Montreal Canadiens 3-1.

MONTREAL — If you blinked you might have missed it. Hats off to you if you saw it in real-time.

Alex Galchenyuk corralled a puck in the high slot, siphoned it down low to Max Pacioretty, and Pacioretty sent it to Andrew Shaw for the Montreal Canadiens’ only goal in a 4-1 loss to the San Jose Sharks on Tuesday at the Bell Centre. A perfect tick-tack-toe play … except it wasn’t.

The replay showed the puck bounced off the heel of Shaw’s stick, off of Sharks defenceman Justin Braun’s skate, and finally off Shaw’s shin pad and into the net. It should have come easier, especially on a five-on-three power play, and especially since the pass to Shaw was a gift.

But absolutely nothing comes easy for this Canadiens team.

It’s a new year, but this much hasn’t changed. The Canadiens ended 2017 by being shut out by the Florida Panthers at BB&T Center and started 2018 with a dud in front of their fans at home. It was their fifth loss in a row — all of them registered with the team not managing more than a single goal. And you can count it as the 24th time this season they haven’t managed to score more than two.

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Not exactly a flattering statistic after 40 games. It’s no wonder frustration has reached a tipping point for the players, who held a closed-door meeting to address how things have devolved in recent weeks to put them eight points out of the second wild card position in the Eastern Conference and 12 points back of third place in the Atlantic Division.

“Our effort level needs to be better,” said defenceman Jeff Petry.

It didn’t look great when defenceman Karl Alzner blew a shoe in the neutral zone and virtually no one came to his rescue on San Jose’s fourth goal of the game — a play that saw Timo Meier stride in with seemingly all the time in the world to pick his spot in the roof of Carey Price’s net and hit it for his second of the night.

“We need to stop playing like individuals,” said forward Charles Hudon.

Easier said than done, especially when even the best of chances aren’t finding the back of the net.

“We know we have to skate teams into the ground in order to give ourselves a chance to win,” said Canadiens captain Pacioretty. “Too many times we were late on the back check and gave them odd-man rushes that way. We want our [defencemen] to take chances and our players to create offence, but that comes with covering up for each other. That part wasn’t there tonight.”

No, it wasn’t.

Exhibit A of what Pacioretty was referring to was Canadiens defenceman Joe Morrow pinching to keep a play alive at the offensive blue line, making a valiant effort to be the first player back on the play and stopping just short of covering Marc-Edouard Vlasic because he saw no one from his team was there to account for a potential drop pass to the slot.

Result: goal No. 2 for the Sharks.

It was a slow burn for the Canadiens from that point on. Same deal for the 21,302 fans who showed up at the Bell Centre and gave their loudest cheers before the game started, following a moment of silence for recently deceased Toronto Maple Leafs legend Johnny Bower, and sat quietly — for the most part — for the rest of the game.

There was one fan who showed up just to yell obscenities at Pacioretty throughout the night. There was another who jokingly belted out odes to former Canadiens, starting a “Saku Koivu” chant, then an “Oleg Petrov” chant, and then a “We want [P.K.] Subban” chant.

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Some in attendance were amused by this. Others … not so much.

“Yeah, I felt that,” said Pacioretty. “The best part about playing in Montreal is the fans, and the city, and the passion for hockey. So when we take that out of the building through poor play, and not winning, and not being exciting, and not scoring goals and not giving the fans a show, it’s upsetting. Especially when that’s your job, you know, to produce and it’s not there and you’re letting down the fans. It’s a very upsetting feeling.”

You can imagine it’s been a tough one to deal with through a 12-game goalless stint for the captain, who only has one goal in his last 23 games.

It can’t be that much more pleasant for several others on the Canadiens, who aren’t doing much better.

“Because we’re frustrated we’re just not doing our job out there,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien. “We need to find a way to just refocus and get back to a game where everybody’s going to be committed to doing their job. Not just one way, but both ways. Offensively and defensively.”

The coach was then asked if that should still be the focus, with the team so far out of the playoff contention, and with the prospect of developing youth perhaps being a more fruitful pursuit at this stage.

“My approach is to solve the problem we currently have and try to win games,” Julien said. “And so long as the organization hasn’t made any decisions [about going in a different direction], that’s what I have to do. I have to find a way to get the team on the right track.”

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