Canadiens’ resilience to be tested by first slump of season

Aleksander Barkov recorded a hat trick with his second being a goal of the year contender as the Florida Panthers beat the Montreal Canadiens 6-3.

SUNRISE, Fla.— We’ve learned that the Montreal Canadiens are a speedy, feisty, competitive team that has more talent than anyone assumed before the season got underway, but we’re about to learn just how resilient they are.

The Canadiens have hit a bump in the road. A 6-3 loss to a Florida Panthers team that came into Sunday’s game 13 points back of them in the standings made it a third straight loss suffered in regulation for the first time all season. If they don’t turn things around quickly, they could find themselves out of a playoff spot in a hurry.

It’s an unthinkable turn of events considering they had gone 9-2-1 and cemented themselves in the post-season picture prior to dropping a game in overtime against the Toronto Maple Leafs and losing to the Nashville Predators, the Tampa Bay Lightning and the Panthers in succession, but that’s how things stand.

“It’s crazy what’s happening in our conference,” said Canadiens defenceman Jordie Benn.

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He’s not wrong. A 6-5 win for the Pittsburgh Penguins over the New York Rangers on Sunday bumped Montreal to the second wild-card position in the East, and they now hold a measly one-point lead over the Carolina Hurricanes. And it was only eight days ago that Montreal had a chance to overtake Toronto for second place in the Atlantic Division.

Now they’re six points back of the Leafs and seven away from the Boston Bruins, who were tied with them in points prior to this mini skid.

“I call it a slump,” said Canadiens coach Claude Julien.

It didn’t look like one was developing when the Canadiens played the second-place Predators hard and fast on Thursday—notching 35 shots in a game that could’ve gone either way. Their loss to the Lightning on Saturday came down to a sloppy third period and Tampa’s stifling speed and quick-strike offence, which has decimated the rest of the league this season. But what happened against the Panthers made it an undeniable reality.

“For whatever reason we just kind of got behind the eight ball early,” said Canadiens captain Shea Weber.

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Consider that an understatement. Max Domi took a high-sticking penalty 3:52 into the first period and Florida’s Aleksander Barkov capitalized on the power play seven seconds later. Canadiens defenceman Victor Mete lost his gap on Denis Malgin in the 12th minute of the frame and the Panthers’ centre took a shot off Mete’s stick and past Canadiens backup Antti Niemi for goal No. 2.

And after Domi reduced the deficit to a goal with his 18th of the season, the Panthers got a goal from Frank Vatrano that squeaked through Niemi’s legs and chased him from the game.

Remarkably, the Canadiens got a goal from Brendan Gallagher before the first period ended and Domi tied the game at 3-3 5:18 into the second.

But less than 12 minutes later, Canadiens defenceman Brett Kulak turned the puck over in the neutral zone, Barkov stole it and raced down the ice before cutting back as he reached Montreal’s crease and finding the back of Carey Price’s net with a breathtaking, through-the-legs finish.

Weber gave him full marks for the move, but pointed out that it came on a breakaway that never should have happened.

Barkov’s third of the game, at 9:13 of the third period, shouldn’t have been a thing, either. He was gifted a two-on-one break from his own blue line after another careless turnover by the Canadiens.

Those unforced errors have been limited by this Montreal side for most of this season, but they’ve started to become much more frequent of late.

“Our players—you can see they’re fighting the puck,” said Julien. “Nothing seems to be easy right now, and that’s what slumps are all about. Every team goes through it. Every team’s gone through it so far this year, I’m sure. We’re going through it now, and I think the biggest thing is how do we stop it? That’s what we’ve got to focus on. Nothing we can do about tonight. We weren’t good, we had a bad start, we got ourselves back into it, a couple of bad penalties we took in the second period took that momentum we had gotten back, and again [in the] third period—like last night [in Tampa]—we just weren’t there.”

No, they weren’t even close to there. The Canadiens were out-shot 17-4 in a three-goal period for the Lightning on Saturday, and they were out-shot 12-3 in a two-goal period for the Panthers on Sunday.

It was Riley Sheahan who iced it with an empty-netter with 2:25 remaining.

“That’s the end of the game,” said Julien. “We’ve gotta focus on our home game on Tuesday and see if we can’t bounce back and get ourselves back on track. That first win’s going to be a tough one, but once we get it, hopefully, we’ll be back on track and hopefully that happens on Tuesday night.”

We wouldn’t put it past this group, but they’ll be in tough against the Columbus Blue Jackets at the Bell Centre.

Nonetheless, they feel confident.

“We’ve reacted very well after losses up to this point,” said Weber.

Benn added that the team’s attitude has been exemplary and that it should play a role in their ability to rebound quickly.

“The spirit in the room is so strong,” he said. “We know we have a chance to win every night, so we just gotta keep her going.”

There’s no choice in the matter.

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