Human motivation is a nebulous thing.
Just ask the Montreal Canadiens, who have lost three in a row after clinching a playoff berth last Thursday. Thankfully for them, the Boston Bruins have gone 0-2-1 over the same span, so the two longtime rivals are still tied for first place in the Northeast Division.
But it isn’t just the losing that’s bothersome for the Canadiens; rather, it’s the way they’re squandering points. Montreal has allowed 18 goals in dropping consecutive decisions to Toronto, Philadelphia and, on Wednesday, the Pittsburgh Penguins.
Part of the Habs’ slump could be attributed to poor goaltending. Peter Budaj and Carey Price were clearly at less than their best in Montreal’s 6-4 loss at Consol Energy Center. However, in his postgame press conference, Montreal coach Michel Therrien alluded to his team being too “easy to play against” since they locked up a playoff spot.
The Canadiens have five regular-season games to return to the style of play that has made their turnaround one of the best stories of this shortened season. Under former Penguins boss Therrien, Montreal has rebounded extremely well from last year’s last-place finish.
Late-season malaise is often a fact of life in the unrelenting NHL, especially when there isn’t much tangible to gain. Yes, Montreal can grab the Eastern Conference’s No. 2 seed if they hold off the Bruins for the Northeast title, but it’s truthfully not much different from the fourth spot, which still features home-ice advantage in the first round.
The Penguins know all about losing focus in early spring, as last year’s team went 4-4 in the home stretch after winning 13 of 14. That doesn’t sound terrible, but Pittsburgh allowed 36 goals over its final eight regular-season games, a average of 4.5 against. During that generous period, players and coaches talked repeatedly about rededicating themselves to defense.
As we know, the team’s bad habits proved stubborn, as the Penguins gave up 30 goals in a wide-open six-game playoff loss to Philadelphia. Those lessons have been applied this season, with Pittsburgh ranking in the top third of the league in goals against, a status boosted by surrendering just 26 during a 15-0 March.
Admittedly, the Penguins haven’t been quite as sharp defensively in April. Wednesday marked the fifth time in seven games this month that an opponent has scored three goals or more. Coach Dan Bylsma hasn’t ignored this, even as his team has won five in a row without captain Sidney Crosby, among others. After the defeat of Montreal, Bylsma told the assembled media that he didn’t like the high-quality chances the Pens allowed late in the game.
We’ll soon find out if the Penguins can keep their own zone clean when the games really count. They certainly don’t lack for cautionary tales, whether they draw from their own experience or the current plight of the Canadiens.