The problem with exceeding expectations at the beginning of a season is that you'll become classified as an underachiever if your performance level happens to drop off later in the season.


Such is the case with the Montreal Canadiens, who catapulted out of the gate in unexpectedly impressive fashion and demonstrated an ability to compete well with the elite teams of the NHL.


Lately, though, not so much.


The Canadiens entered Thursday night with seven losses in their past 10 games. They were outscored 14-3 in losing three games before last night and had failed to score an even-strength goal in nine of their previous 10 periods, dating back to a 4-2 triumph over the Philadelphia Flyers on Jan. 11.


The Canadiens seem to have become a tired team, perhaps at least partly attributable to a vicious flu bug that hit most of the team early in January. The bug's been gone a while now, though, and yet the team still looks sick. The Canadiens' efforts since New Year's Day — even while healthy — have been mostly lacklustre and conspicuously sluggish.

On Tuesday night, the Habs were shut out 4-0 by Vancouver even though Canucks goaltender Roberto Luongo was nauseous during parts of the game. Luongo spent Monday night in the intensive-care unit of a Montreal hospital after taking a Daniel Sedin wrist shot on the throat during the Canucks' practice. He hardly slept Monday night.

And yet, against the Canadiens, Luongo was able to stop 30 shots for the 30th shutout of his NHL career.

The Canadiens were embarrassed, not only by their Tuesday night performance but because of their general deterioration in January.

"No one here likes what's going on," Montreal forward Christopher Higgins lamented. "To get shut out at home by Vancouver is ridiculous. There's no way they're four goals better than us.

"It's hard to figure out, but our mental focus and execution — I don't know where they've gone. We can't even complete five-foot passes to each other. We were making good plays at the beginning of the season but now it seems like no one wants the puck."

Some NHL scouts believe the Habs' captain, Saku Koivu, has been looking particularly lethargic.

"Our energy level isn't what it was earlier," Koivu confessed. "Maybe the day off this week (Wednesday) will help get us back to where we were.

"We also have to get back to basic hockey. We have to keep it simple and hope that things will turn around for us. It's not fun lately. We haven't been able to find the spark we need to find, but we have to or what started out as a good season will turn out to be very disappointing."

The pressure's on in Montreal, a hockey hotbed since way back when, and much of the scrutiny is on forward Sergei Samsonov, who's been slumping and had scored only six goals in his first 47 games with the Canadiens this season.

"It's frustrating when the team's losing and then you become the main focus for the media," he said. "It's a pressure city to play in, for sure, and things are not going my way. But I'll continue to work hard and see what happens."

What had better happen is a winning streak if the Canadiens are going to advance to the playoffs.

“We’re going to get out of this together,” vowed Montreal defenceman Francis Bouillon. “That’s the only way things are going to improve for us.

“We beat really good teams in the first part of the season. We know we can do it. We have a better team than this. The next few practices and games are going to be huge. We can’t let up now and we won't."

We'll see.

• The woeful Philadelphia Flyers are making plans for next season and they hope not only to make a good draft choice or two but to strengthen their team through the free-agent market.

And, indeed, there will be some top-quality free agents available, including Daniele Briere, Kimmo Timonen, Chris Drury and Scott Gomez.

•Unlike other professional leagues, the NHL doesn't hand out an award for its comeback player of the year.

If it did, chances are that it would go this season to forward Dan Cleary of the Detroit Red Wings.

Cleary went into Thursday night with18 goals—a career high and second in Detroit behind Henrik Zetterbeg — and is playing an extremely important role on a Stanley Cup-contending team.

And yet Cleary started the season without a contract and with little interest around the NHL.

Were it not for Detroit coach Mike Babcock, in fact, Clearly probably would be working now in a real job somewhere.

Babcock was familiar with Cleary because of their time together with the Canadian world junior team in 1997. Babcock actually cut him from that team but remembered that he was a decent offensive player who was worth seeing in training camp. And the Wings needed a body to take up some of the offensive slack lost when Brendan Shanahan jumped to the New York Rangers as a free agent. So they gave Cleary a tryout, with no guarantees.

Well, Cleary has responded remarkably well.

"He's matured as a hockey player," Detroit general manager Ken Holland told Ted Kulfan of the Detroit News. "With some players, it just takes longer. He's playing with a lot of confidence. He's always had the skills."

In his first 406 NHL games, Cleary scored only 44 goals with the Chicago Blackhawks, Edmonton Oilers and Phoenix Coyotes .

"He's a feel-good story now," Babcock said. "He didn't have any pace to his game (before this season)."

Babcock said, before this season, he wasn't impressed with Cleary's skating. Cleary, however, has won over Babcock and the Wings by improving his conditioning habits. The forward began to work with trainer T.R. Goodman, who has been employed in the past by veterans such as Rob Blake, Mathieu Schneider and Chris Chelios.

Said Babcock: "Dan decided he's going to be a good player."

And he certainly has been.