About last night …

How bad is it?
You had to stay up late to gauge precisely how bad things are for your Montreal Canadiens.

Had the Florida lost in regulation time to the Avalanche in Denver, the Panthers would have dropped to eighth place in the Eastern Conference with 51 points.

That would have left the Canadiens a mere nine points out of a playoff spot. As it eventuated, however, the surprising Panthers lost in OT. The point gave them 52, and while the Panthers have surrendered the Southeast Division lead to Washington, they are 10 points up on the floundering Canadiens.

10 points.

A double-digit gap between the Canadiens and postseason hockey.

Does anyone think it’s going to happen?

The players say they do. But of course, they would.

Elite athletes are conditioned, from major junior or U.S. college hockey onward, to never give up.

They may not play at their best every night. That level of intensity is difficult to sustain over six months and 82 hockey games.

But they are proud, and they’re trained to believe their next shift is going to be better than their last.

Maybe the Canadiens will win in Pittsburgh Friday night. And maybe that victory will be a springboard toward a super effort at the ACC on Saturday.

But let’s be realistic.

The math is not quite as daunting as lottery odds, but each loss renders the playoffs more of a longshot.

Some fans (and at least one blogger: me) were fooled by what we saw Sunday night.

But dating back to that crazy third-period comeback – when Scott Gomez was still in the visitors’ dressing room – the Rangers have been the Canadiens’ patsies at the Bell Centre.

A truer measure of where the team is at was to be seen at the beginning of last week, when the St. Louis Blues came to town and made the Canadiens look every inch what they are: a 12th place hockey team that is closer to 15th than to eighth.

In a reversal of the phenomenon we witnessed, to our great delight, during the 2010 playoffs, the Canadiens outshot Washington 31-16 and still lost. They were shut out for the fifth time this season.

Three of the goose eggs have been rung up at the Bell Centre, which is becoming an increasingly sombre and lifeless place as reality dawns on the sellout crowds who have had little to cheer this season.

Perhaps all those Stanley Cup banners and retired jersey numbers have left Montrealers with unreasonable expectations and a sense of entitlement.

The other legacy, however, is appreciation of good hockey. And the flip side of that is recognition of  crap.

Erik Cole, who had five shots and three hits against Washington, has become a fan favourite because the Bell Centre appreciates a thoroughbred who gives everything he’s got every time he laces up.

They recognize the immense potential of Max Pacioretty (six shots on goal against the Caps), P.K. Subban and Lars Eller.

They admire the playmaking ingenuity, innate hockey sense and toughness of David Desharnais, a diminutive homeboy who weaves fearlessly around the big guys.

And on what was an otherwise joyless evening, fans responded to the man-up courage of Rene Bourque, who knew the NHL’s code of honour would require him to fight a Cap.

(Is it ethnically insensitive to say I’ve never seen a bad First Nations fighter? Stan Jonathan, Gino Odjick, Chris Simon, Jordin Tootoo, Arron Asham, Sheldon Souray: all warriors.)

But because Montreal isn’t Boston, the buzz generated by Bourque’s solid decision over Matt Hendrick’s did not last very long.

And it didn’t seem to spark his teammates.

Carey Price was beaten by a good shot for the first Washington goal but looked bad on the second.  The goaltender is not putting up the kind of stats his agent can wave under the nose of Pierre Gauthier … or whoever might be in charge of negotiating Price’s next contract.

On too many nights, however, Price has to be flawless for the Canadiens to have a chance.

This team can’t score.

The power play is the league’s worst, converting a pathetic 12.3 per cent of its chances. pat Hickey tells me this is the worst the Canadiens PP has been since they started keeping power-play stats in 1967. The previous low was 14 per cent in the 2002-’03 season, when the PP clicked at 14 per cent.

The Canadiens had a man advantage for 12 minutes against Washington. The power play, which is Randy Cunneyworth’s personal coaching responsibility, displayed what we’ve seen all too often: Perimeter passing and low-percentage shots.

Watching Tomas Kaberle man the left point is a painful reminder of what Andrei Markov’s injuries have cost this team.

The right-point shooters –  P.K., Yannick Weber – make you yearn for the glory days of Mark Streit, Sheldon Souray, Marc-André Bergeron and James Wisniewski.

But enough about the past.

Like the players, who think they’re still in the playoff hunt, we have to believe in a better future.

Because the present kinda sucks.

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