BROSSARD, Que. – The Montreal Canadiens have beat the odds before, and they have every intention of doing it again.
The Canadiens held a team meeting Wednesday for more than 45 minutes to pick apart why they weren’t able to score a single goal in losing the first two games of the Eastern Conference final to the Philadelphia Flyers.
As they prepared for Thursday’s Game 3 (CBC, 7 p.m. ET), most of the hockey world had already written them off. But that’s nothing new for the Canadiens this post-season.
“We know it’s not going to be easy, we know it’s a difficult task, but I have great confidence in the character and the determination of our players,” Canadiens coach Jacques Martin said. “A lot of people in here, after Game 4 against Washington, weren’t too optimistic. This group proved them wrong. This is another time where we’re challenged, and that’s when you see the best of people.”
The Canadiens were down 3-1 against the Capitals in the first round only to come back to win the next three games. They also fell behind 3-2 against the Pittsburgh Penguins in the conference semifinal and closed out the series with two straight wins.
While they aren’t facing elimination Thursday, a 3-0 series deficit might be too much for the resilient Canadiens to overcome.
But the main message at Wednesday’s team meeting was to put aside any thought of trying to win the series individually, and instead focus on the strong team game that brought the Canadiens to this point.
“The thinking is when your backs are up against the wall that you have to do more, but sometimes less is more,” winger Brian Gionta said. “You’d rather just trust in the system and work hard in the system and not deviate from that team game. Not try to take it all on your shoulders. I think that’s what (Martin) was trying to guard against.”
The Canadiens have identified two key areas that need improvement.
The most obvious one is to find a way to get a puck behind Flyers goalie Michael Leighton, who has stopped all 58 shots the Canadiens have thrown his way through two games.
The common wisdom says that to shake a hot goalie off his game you need to get bodies in front of him. While the Canadiens keep n talking about it, star winger Michael Cammalleri says talk became cheap long ago.
“You just do it,” said Cammalleri, the league’s leading playoff scorer with 12 goals. “We looked at the video and we did have some times where we did do those things, so you feed off that and you go back to it.”
The other area where the Canadiens need to improve is special teams, with Philadelphia going 4-for-10 on the power play and the Habs countering with an 0-for-8 performance.
“I think 5-on-5 we’ve been doing a great job,” said defenceman Josh Gorges. “If we clean up our penalty kill and get a little sharper on the power play, it will be the difference in this series.”
The two games in Philadelphia each began the exact same way, with the Canadiens getting an early power play, having it negated by a penalty to Scott Gomez and then the Flyers scoring on the ensuing man advantage.
Gomez is the only Canadien room with two Stanley Cup rings, but Martin said he is not concerned about the lack of discipline shown by one of his key leaders.
“He’s won the Stanley Cup before, he’s an experienced guy that brings leadership, so he can recognize those are situations that need to be avoided,” Martin said. “Sometimes you’re overzealous, and those situations are caused by your overzealous play. But as a veteran player he knows those are situations that he has to correct.”
Gorges admitted that bad penalties can carry a heavier burden than so-called good ones.
“Sometimes when you come up and take a few too many bad penalties, frustration gets in the way of how you react on the penalty kill,” he said. “But those things are going to happen and we need to find a way to be more resilient on the penalty-kill.”
The Flyers have taken the Canadiens model for playoff success and turned it against them by playing a patient, opportunistic game and riding a hot goalie to two wins.
In that sense, who better to come up with a way to defeat that kind of game than the Canadiens, who perfected it themselves in the first two rounds?
“It’s not about knowing how to beat it as much as it is being patient and playing well against it,” defenceman Hal Gill said. “We can’t panic and get off our game. They’re up two games, but we can’t get rattled and get off our game plan. We have to be patient.”
Note: The Canadiens will definitely be without all-star defenceman Andrei Markov for the rest of the playoffs. He underwent successful surgery Wednesday to repair a torn anterior cruciate ligament in his right knee and his recovery is expected to take six months. He hasn’t played since Game 1 of the second round but there had been some speculation he could return to the lineup when he skated with the team last week.