This was supposed to be the easy part of the December schedule for your Montreal Canadiens:
Philadelphia, the Islanders and Florida.
Three games in four nights, which is never easy, but against opponents who are sitting well below the Canadiens in the Eastern Conference standings.
But a funny thing happened on the way to three Ws.
Easy got hard.
The Canadiens salvaged an overtime win on Long Island. But they lost in Philadelphia and at home to Florida by identical 2-1 scores.
And now the Canadiens face Phoenix at the Bell Centre Tuesday night before embarking on a road trip that will include stops in St. Louis, Nashville, Tampa Bay, Florida, Carolina and Dallas.
Any of those games strike you as easy?
The team’s problem is not difficult to pinpoint.
The Canadiens can’t score.
They’ve been shut out by the Kings, held to one goal by the Flyers and Panthers and garnered a point on Long Island despite failing to score in regulation against the most porous defence in the NHL.
On Sunday I watched two sports events featuring my favourite teams.
Liverpool, which had not an English Premier League match at White Hart Lane in five years, scored five times in the span of 71 minutes to trounce Tottenham Hotspur 5-0.
On this side of the Atlantic Ocean, the Montreal Canadiens have scored five goals over their last 300 minutes of regulation-time hockey.
This team needs Luis Suarez on the power play.
Or Alex Galchenyuk when the goaltender is on the bench for an extra atttacker.
Galchenyuk, who had scored the Canadiens’ last three regulation-time goals, was not on the ice Sunday night as the Canadiens pressed for an equalizer to salvage at least at least a point from a dismal evening.
P.K. Subban and Andrei Markov were on. So were Tomas Plekanec, David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Brendan Gallagher.
But his buddy Gallagher, who hasn’t scored since Nov. 27 and looked, for most of his shifts against the Panthers, like an undersized forward on whom a compressed schedule may be beginning to take its toll.
I admit that’s nit-picking. Gallagher has the heart of a lion, and Michel Therrien probably wanted a forward who would happily engage Florida goaltender Scott Clemmensen as the seconds ticked down.
At least the coach didn’t use Daniel Brière.
It’s not like the Canadiens are blessed with a roster full of snipers. The goal drought has highlighted that deficiency.
But the list of lacuna goes beyond scoring.
The Canadiens are not generating good chances.
Odd-man rushes? Tic-tac-toe passing plays? Speed through the neutral zone?
All have gone MIA.
The Canadiens had 18 shots on goal against Florida.
In their own barn.
Unless P.K. Subban or, against Florida at least, David Desharnais is carrying the puck, the Canadiens labour to gain possession in the offensive zone. Dump-ins, ineffectual retrievals – usually against defencemen who are bigger than attacking Canadiens forwards – maybe a shot on goal but usually one and done.
On a snow-gripped day in Montreal, we saw no flurries of offence at the Bell Centre … other than those last few seconds of frantic action.
The power play was better than it had been on Long Island. The man advantage produced Galchenyuk’s goal, and there was better puck movement to counter pressure on P.K. and Markov at the points.
But with momentum swinging and a 5-on-3 advantage for 35 seconds, the Canadiens attack fizzled. No one in Clemmensen’s face. No one-time snipes from the slot.
Look, all is not doom and gloom.
Florida has been hot, winning five of six, including two over Detroit.
The Canadiens are still third in the Eastern Conference, 11 points clear of falling outside playoff participation.
The goaltending and defence are solid, the latter bolstered by Douglas Murray seeming to have won the sixth D spot over gallant-but-aging Francis Bouillon.
Galchenyuk is having a good sophomore season. Tomas Plekanec is quietly excellent. DD and Max shows signs of coming to life. The penalty-kill is fourth in the league.
This week has days off for practice. And there’s a six-day break after the visit to Nashville.
Nine days until Christmas, it’s too early to panic about the Canadiens or your shopping.