First off, sorry I've been off the job so long. All-Star weekend was more work that I had bargained for and I just didn't have time to get to the blog, at least not as much as I would have liked. Anyhow, I won't bore with more details about the all-star game, other than to say how interesting it was to work an event where practically all the NHL's media were in one place. The Habs dressing room never felt so small.
My story coming out of the all-star game was about whether or not winning the MVP could propel Alex Kovalev to rebound in the second half of the season, but the main story of the weekend was obviously the Vincent Lecavalier love-in with the Montreal fans.
So the script could not have been better written than to have the Habs in Tampa Bay for the first game out of the break, and after a first period in which Montreal outshot the Lightning 20-7, you can't help but wonder whether or not Lecavalier kind of wished he was in the visiting dressing room.
But the Habs only came out of that period with a 2-1 lead, partly because of the brilliance of Mike Smith in the Lightning goal, and partly because of a lack of opportunism on the part of the Habs. Having a 5-on-3 power play for over a minute and coming up empty was far more costly than it appeared at the time, and that old adage of how killing a big penalty switches the momentum certainly applied there.
Both the Canadiens and the Lightning were different teams in the second period, and though Tampa Bay benefited from a few fortuitous bounces, the fact remains they took advantage of an opportunity to get back in the game, scoring the next four goals and ultimately coming away with a 5-3 win.
Prior to the break, when the Habs laid down in losses in Atlanta and New Jersey, it was easy to chalk that up to players anticipating the all-star break and lacking a bit of focus. But that same excuse can't apply here, and it's becoming relatively critical that Guy Carbonneau and his staff fix what isn't working.
That would be a recurring problem of playing games one period at a time, with the energy level bouncing up and down like a super ball. I'm not a coach and I have no idea what goes on in an NHL dressing room between periods, but there has to be something Carbonneau and his assistants can do to make sure their team maintains the same level of play through the intermission, isn't there?
Watching Tuesday night's game, I couldn't help but think back to the 3-1 loss to the Boston Bruins on Jan. 13, when Montreal was all over them in the first and fired 17 shots at Tim Thomas, yet went into the first intermission in a scoreless tie. There was a lot of encouraging signs in that first period, yet somehow you knew the Bruins were going to win because they had weathered the storm, one the Habs would have almost no chance of maintaining.
The same thing applied against the Lightning on Tuesday night, when the Habs should have come out of the first with at least a two-goal lead. And, come to think of it, didn't the same thing happen to this team in last year's playoff ouster to the Flyers, when the Habs consistently out-chanced Philly yet couldn't finish their opportunities?
That may be a bit of stretch, but the inability to put together a full 60 minutes of hockey is something that has plagued the Canadiens for much of the season, yet they've been able to get by on superior talent. The Habs record is far from being a disaster at 27-14-6, except that when they face the East's top teams (Bruins, Capitals, Devils, Rangers and Flyers) the Habs have a pretty pedestrian record of 6-6-2.
Before going off the deep end here, let's make it clear that there are more positives than negatives surrounding the Canadiens this season. But Thursday night's game against the Panthers now becomes extremely crucial in avoiding the team's first four-game losing streak in two seasons. That game will not be easy as the Panthers are surging right now, with only one regulation loss in their last 10 games.
You have to figure that Bob Gainey and company are busy evaluating the team with the trade deadline about six weeks away, and a serious lack of guts has to be disconcerting to a man who built a Hall of Fame career largely on that.
But if there is another trend the Habs have shown this season it is their capacity to come up with their best games whenever they are left for dead. Their ability to continue that trend Thursday night will likely go a long way to determining what kind of stretch run we can expect from this team.