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Playoff prospects bleak as Canadiens soldier on through losing season


BROSSARD, Que. — The chances of making a late charge for a playoff spot are so slim the Montreal Canadiens don't really think about it much these days.

Sitting 14th in the 16-team NHL Eastern Conference with a 22-25-6 record, they are only eight points behind Columbus who hold the final playoff spot, but there are five teams to climb over to catch them.

Even a pair of wins at home last weekend didn't get them past any rivals.

"For us now, we're just trying to focus on what we need to do," forward Brendan Gallagher said this week. "There's so much that needs to go right here, all we can control is ourselves.

"If we focus on that, you can be proud of your work at the end of the day. We played pretty good the last couple of games and hopefully we can keep that going."

The Canadiens are back in action Thursday in Philadelphia, where the 25-19-9 Flyers are currently in a wild card playoff spot despite going 1-3-1 in their last five outings. Goalie Brian Elliott returned from a lower-body injury Tuesday night for a 2-1 overtime win over Carolina to end the Flyers' four-game skid.

Montreal got a boost from victories of 5-2 over Anaheim and 4-1 over Ottawa in afternoon games Saturday and Sunday after scoring only once in two road losses last week. They chased Anaheim starter Ryan Miller in the first period and used a hot power play, which went five-for-10 on the weekend to move up to seventh best in the NHL with a 21.6 per cent success rate, to beat the Senators.

But even captain Max Pacioretty cautioned against getting overly excited.

"We know the situation," he said. "We chased the goalie early against Anaheim and Ottawa has been struggling, but still we want some momentum in our game, especially individuals, to build off that and contribute to more wins.

"We know in a couple of days (against the Flyers) there's going to be a little less space out there. Our power play's been really good of late. That's been the difference."

Canadiens fans are divided these days. Some want them to lose games and finish as low as possible to boost their chances for a high draft pick. Many are clamouring for a rebuild of a team that will almost certainly miss the playoffs for the second time in three seasons.

And most expect that general manager Marc Bergevin will soon start dealing veteran players like Pacioretty and centre Tomas Plekanec to Stanley Cup contenders for draft picks and prospects.

Bergevin is also under the gun for letting forward Alexander Radulov and defenceman Andrei Markov leave as free agents and not filling a gaping hole by finding a top-line centre, all while his prize off-season acquisition Jonathan Drouin struggles to adapt to playing at centre.

The defence is a mess, especially with top rearguard Shea Weber out with a foot injury since December. They are 27th in goals scored per game at 2.58 and eighth worst in goals allowed at 3.06. 

Coach Claude Julien surely had no idea it would be like this when, a week after being fired by Boston last Feb. 7, he signed on with Montreal. Last season, the Canadiens had 103 points to finish first in the Atlantic division, although the attack went south as they fell to the New York Rangers in the first round of playoffs.

"What we're focused on is getting better," said Julien. "We hope that by focusing on that, things will take care of themselves.

"We know where we are in the standings and we really need to push hard to get back in the hunt because we're quite a few points behind. We're focusing on game to game. Now, we're focused on Philadelphia."

There was encouraging news at practice Wednesday as Weber skated for the first time since an outdoor game in Ottawa on Dec. 16. He skated about 20 minutes with centre Phillip Danault, who is recovering from a concussion. Neither is ready to return to action.

Bill Beacon, The Canadian Press

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