Faltering Canadiens can’t shake losing identity

Michel Therrien is running out of words and time to get the Montreal Canadiens out of their funk and turned around as another game of poor execution proved to be the team's undoing.

Montreal Canadiens play-by-play man John Bartlett said it best on Jan. 19.

“What started as a streak became a slump, and now it is Montreal’s identity,” Bartlett said in the third period of the team’s 17th loss in 22 games.

After managing an emotional win over the Toronto Maple Leafs this past Saturday, the Canadiens fell right back into character Monday, dropping a 5-2 decision to the Columbus Blue Jackets, who came into the game with the NHL’s worst record (17-27-5).

The pattern seems unbreakable.

It’s Jan. 26, and the Canadiens, who won nine straight games to start the regular season, haven’t strung together consecutive wins in 60 days.

However, it’s not for a lack of effort.

Since losing became Montreal’s identity nearly two months ago, they’ve had the fourth best Corsi For percentage in the NHL. Night after night, they’ve outplayed their opponents, they’ve out-chanced them, and they’ve rarely reaped any reward for their efforts.

Monday’s game against Columbus was the 17th time this season the Canadiens have outshot their opponent and lost. No team currently holding down a playoff position has lost more under those circumstances.

Self-pity is natural to come by when so much bad comes from so much good, but that won’t get the Canadiens out of this skid.

Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin had seen enough of that kind of behaviour from his team before stepping into the dressing room at their practice facility last Thursday to make an attempt at breaking the tension.

“The only way we get out of this is if we stick together,” Bergevin told the Canadiens. “Don’t play not to lose, play to win.”

Bergevin then met with the media for 30 minutes to take the heat off of the players and head coach Michel Therrien by urging the fans of the Canadiens to lay the blame at his feet. “If it doesn’t work, it’s my fault,” said Bergevin.

Still, Therrien and the players can’t point the finger at Bergevin every time they fail to deliver, and the Canadiens failed big-time in Columbus on Monday.

After forward Brendan Gallagher put Montreal up 1-0, he and his linemates coughed up the puck three times on the same play before Columbus forward Cam Atkinson tied the game four minutes later.

It was in the second period that Atkinson beat Alexei Emelin and Tomas Plekanec to a loose puck and shovelled a weak backhand through Canadiens goaltender Mike Condon.

Canadiens defenceman P.K. Subban responded with a goal from centre ice to tie the game 2-2, but his team bobbled the puck again before Brandon Saad scored Columbus’s third goal with a little less than 11 minutes left in the third period.

Saad later added an empty-net goal on a direct turnover from forward Tomas Fleischmann.

“We gave them three goals when we had the puck,” said Therrien in French. “Bad execution.”

Good execution has become a foreign concept for this Canadiens team that has scored fewer than three goals in all but five of their last 24 games and allowed more than three in all but six of them.

Identities don’t change overnight.

The Canadiens set out to prove they could win without reigning Hart and Vezina Trophy-winning goaltender Carey Price from Oct. 30 to Nov. 20. They went 6-2-1, averaged 3.5 goals per game, 2.6 goals against and scored on 21 per cent of their power plays when they first lost him to a lower-body injury.

The Canadiens have since gone 5-17-3 in Price’s prolonged absence, establishing this unshakable identity.

Tuesday will offer the Canadiens another chance to hit the restart button with a win. The Blue Jackets will be in town for the second leg of a home-at-home.

Imagine they pull it off?

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