St. Louis facing steep challenge to lift Canadiens after dispiriting stretch

Joonas Korpisalo made 24 saves and four different Ottawa Senators found the back of the net as they beat the Montreal Canadiens for the second time in a week, 4-1 the final.

MONTREAL — You have to admire Martin St. Louis’ glass-half-full approach in assessing a 4-1 loss that left his Montreal Canadiens feeling completely empty on Tuesday. He liked their pushback in the third period of this game against the Ottawa Senators, he liked the way they found some semblance of their identity after it appeared as though they had lost it completely over their last eight periods, he liked the way they killed penalties and limited scoring chances against throughout the night, and he even said one of the biggest disadvantages they came into the game with — only having three centres on the roster — could’ve have just as easily been one of their biggest advantages.

That type of optimism will come in handy as the Canadiens approach several more challenges from here to the end of the season.

The games are only going to get harder as several opponents gear up for the Stanley Cup Playoffs, the roster will only become more depleted as the trade deadline nears and general manager Kent Hughes moves key players to recoup futures, and St. Louis will have to be both head coach and head cheerleader to keep his team from regressing any further in its process. It would serve no good for him to kick his team while it’s down, and it is unquestionably down at the moment, with this loss added to a 6-2 one to these same Senators last Thursday and a 9-4 one to the Boston Bruins on Saturday.

“This league happens fast, and we just lost our confidence a little bit,” St. Louis said. “We’re a little fragile.”

[brightcove videoID=6345443410112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

It really showed on Tuesday, with the Canadiens giving Ridly Greig an easy shorthanded goal 7:45 into the first period and then giving up another to Jake Sanderson 41 seconds later.

Shane Pinto’s first goal of the season, 6:22 into the second period, was a free pass to the net to put the Senators up 3-0, and the Canadiens responded to it by blowing two consecutive power plays after failing to make a single cohesive play on their first three.

They registered just three shots on net in nearly eight full minutes with the man-advantage, failing to set themselves up in the offensive zone let alone appear dangerous in there.

“It’s hard to get shots on the power play when you don’t possess the puck,” said St. Louis, and that was one thing he didn’t sugarcoat.

But there was no value in lacing into his team further for what was an ugly performance.

The odd formation, pardon the pun, was right at the centre of it, making it appear as though the Canadiens were dancing with two left feet for most of the night. With Mitchell Stephens waived and sent to the AHL to reactivate winger Tanner Pearson, St. Louis looked like he was juggling too many balls with one hand tied behind his back. It forced him to use so many different line combinations at five-on-five that even natturalstatrick.com — one of hockey’s best advanced statistics sites — lost count.

They stopped at six, with Jake Evans going from starting the season as the fourth-line centre to centring four different lines in Game 47.

That obviously complicated things, but St. Louis wasn’t going to throw the people above him (who have final say on such a decision) under the bus.

“We’ve already played with three centres and seven defencemen,” he said, “and I would’ve done that but wanted to have Pezz (Michael Pezzetta) on my bench against Ottawa.”

Mission accomplished!

[brightcove videoID=6345442264112 playerID=JCdte3tMv height=360 width=640]

On the bench was where Pezzetta was for all but four shifts and 3:57 of the first period. He spent only 1:57 the ice, though, with the other two minutes spent in the penalty box.

Captain Nick Suzuki said the three-centre, nine-winger rotation was harder for the wingers to deal with, but it looked extremely hard for all of the Canadiens to handle it for most of the game.

Everything else appeared hard for them, too, through at least 40 minutes. But that’s where the Canadiens are at right now.

This slip has suddenly turned what was a narrow gap in the standings not too long ago into a Grand Canyon-wide chasm, as this loss sunk them eight points back of the Detroit Red Wings, who currently hold down the second wild-card position in the Eastern Conference.

Four teams are behind them and ahead of the Canadiens, and two of them — the New York Islanders and Pittsburgh Penguins — are Montreal’s next opponents before the bye-week begins.

A pessimist would look at the state of the team and its fragile psyche and say its slide downhill is about to pick up momentum.

But St. Louis won’t stop it by being pessimistic and adding to the frustration his players are feeling.

He’ll do what he must to lift spirits, he’ll go back to the drawing board to tweak tactics and reconsider deployments, and he’ll remind the Canadiens they have more to give than what they’re currently offering. That what this situation demands of him.

When submitting content, please abide by our submission guidelines, and avoid posting profanity, personal attacks or harassment. Should you violate our submissions guidelines, we reserve the right to remove your comments and block your account. Sportsnet reserves the right to close a story’s comment section at any time.