BROSSARD, Que. — It will be up to the Montreal Canadiens' top players to turn the team's fortunes around in the second half of the NHL season.
That was the message from coach Claude Julien on Wednesday as his team held a lively practice a day after suffering a defeat at the hands of the visiting San Jose Sharks that ran the Canadiens' losing streak to five games.
Other than Brendan Gallagher, whose team-leading 15 goals has him on pace for a career season, most of the Canadiens' top players have struggled through the first 40 games.
That has left them with a 16-20-4 record to sit 28th overall in the 31-team league and in grave danger of missing the playoffs.
"To get out of the slump we're in, the best players have to take charge," said Julien. "You need to rely on them and they need to embrace it.
"It's not the guys who have a secondary role who are going to get us out of this. If we saw a guy like (Nicolas) Deslauriers named player of the month it was because he had a good month, but it was also because we didn't see a lot of success from certain players that we need more from. We need to find that on our team. When our best players take charge I think things will change."
Julien didn't need to name names. The statistics are evidence enough.
Captain Max Pacioretty, a 30-goal scorer in each of the last five full seasons, has eight goals. Prize off-season acquisition Jonathan Drouin, still adapting to his new role as a centre, has only five. Alex Galchenyuk has 22 points, the lowest team-leading total in the league. Tomas Plekanec has been in a slide for the last two and half seasons and has only 16 points.
A players-only meeting was held after the 4-1 loss to the Sharks to find a way to stop the downward spiral ahead of a home game Thursday night against the league-leading Tampa Bay Lightning that will mark the midpoint in their 82-game schedule.
Most of their troubles of late have been on offence, with only four goals scored in their last five games. They have scored more than two goals only twice in their last 11 outings (3-7-1).
Their offence is 27th best in the NHL, while their defence is seventh-worst. Their power play is OK with a 19.0 per cent success rate (16th), but the penalty kill (77.6 per cent) is 26th.
"When you're going through these things, it makes you think more and makes you hesitate more and when you hesitate in a game that's this quick, that's when you're going to run into mistakes," Gallagher said of the scoring woes. "We have to almost forget about it and rely more on our instincts."
Things seemed to go wrong since the end of last season, when they won the Atlantic Division with 103 points (eighth overall) but then laboured to score against the New York Rangers in a first-round play off exit.
General manager Marc Bergevin made a bold deal to improve the attack, sending defence prospect Mikhail Sergachev to Tampa Bay for Drouin, only to see the young Russian put up 26 points in his first 39 games with the Lightning this season.
Any boost from Drouin was offset by the unexpected departure of right-wing dynamo Alexander Radulov, who jumped at a five-year free agent offer from the Dallas Stars. Then veteran defenceman Andrei Markov left for the KHL, leaving Bergevin with more than US$7 million in unused cap space and an undermanned offence.
More pain came when star goalie Carey Price had a horrendous start, although he has been back to normal after missing 10 games with a lower body injury in November. Now they are missing top defenceman Shea Weber with a foot injury until at least the Jan. 26-29 all-star break.
All the while, the Canadiens dropped farther and farther out of playoff position. There was a report that Pacioretty is on the trading block, but there's no talk yet of writing off this season to build for the future, even if they acknowledge they will have to win two-thirds of their remaining games just to have a chance at the playoffs.
For now, the focus is on breaking their slump, which will be all the more difficult with the team looking tired after a first half heavy in road games.
"I think our guys are still recovering from the last three weeks," said Julien. "Guys have expressed that they're tired so were trying to give them a chance to recover.
"If we want to win games, I have to give them that opportunity, although it's always the same thing: Why don't we crack the whip? Cracking the whip right now is not going to help our hockey team. So that's on me. If people don't agree with what I'm doing that's fine. I'm doing the right thing for the team."
Backup goaltender Al Montoya practised for a second day in a row and said he felt fine, but he has yet to get the green light to return from a concussion. Galchenyuk missed the skate with a flu.
Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press