Canadiens, Rangers are playing like they've lost all confidence
Quite the race we have for the fourth spot in the Eastern Conference, huh? You know, the one between Philadelphia and Buffalo?
Because count this humble hockey writer as a total nonbeliever in the Rangers and the Habs having any chance at starting the playoffs at home. At this point, these two slumping and bumbling teams have to hope to just make the playoffs.
Montreal has dropped eight of its past 10 games, while the Rangers are winless in five, both teams showing all the signs of panicky groups that have lost all confidence. Once both teams fell behind in their respective road games Monday night, the slumping shoulders were noticeable, as was their tentative play.
"Being afraid to lose is one thing," Canadiens coach Guy Carbonneau said in French to reporters Monday night. "But our confidence is so shaken right now that we're scared to play hockey."
"I don't think we have the confidence we need right now," Rangers goalie Henrik Lundqvist told the New York Post. "We're saying the right things about what we want to do, but you can sense that the confidence drops if we fall behind by a goal or two."
Is there an echo in here? These two teams are in dire need of a serious jolt.
Perhaps the Rangers will get that in the form of Sean Avery, who began his road back to Madison Square Garden with his official assignment to the AHL's Hartford on Tuesday. We were told the original plan was to let him play at least a week, if not two, in Hartford before making him Rangers property. But, at this point, maybe Larry Brooks of the New York Post is dead-on -- bring Avery in ASAP. The record shows over the past two seasons the Rangers win more games with the controversial winger in their lineup. These are desperate times, and feeling the need for help from Avery is as desperate as it gets.
Otherwise, Rangers GM Glen Sather has a more complicated scenario in front of him compared to his Montreal counterpart, Bob Gainey. The long-term, nearly untradable contracts of Scott Gomez, Chris Drury, Wade Redden and Michal Rozsival (nice season, boys) have tied Sather's hands in a pretty serious way. There's no blowing up this baby. That's the silver lining for the Habs. Half their roster is headed for free agency, including Alexei Kovalev (UFA), Saku Koivu (UFA), Mike Komisarek (UFA), Alex Tanguay (UFA), Tomas Plekanec (RFA) and Christopher Higgins (RFA). If there are guys Gainey believes are no longer part of the solution, he can easily move them by the March 4 trade deadline as rentals or let them walk away July 1. Just as long as he's successful in replacing them with better players. And there's no guarantee there.
Still, Gainey has roster flexibility, while Sather does not. Gainey, thanks to scouting star Trevor Timmins, also has a bounty of young assets to use at his trade disposal, if he chooses. Gainey held a meeting with the coaching staff in Montreal before the team left for its six-game road trip this week. Oh, to be a fly on that wall. It must be gut-wrenching for Gainey and Carbonneau to see a talented squad play with so little heart or emotion during this ugly stretch. From this vantage point, it doesn't seem to even bother the likes of Kovalev and Plekanec and the Kostitsyn brothers, among others, that they are losing. For guys like Gainey and Carbonneau, who left it all on the ice during their stellar careers, that is simply unacceptable.
"In my eyes, it must hurt Carbonneau even more," respected hockey columnist Francois Gagnon, of the French Montreal newspaper La Presse, told us Tuesday. "Because if I have one criticism of him, it is that, since he's been there, he's acted like a former player sometimes; he gives his players a lot of chances. He has to realize he's no longer their buddy. He needs to cut the cord. He has to stop thinking like a player.
"Most of these players don't have the courage he had when he played, with the exception of Saku Koivu and a few others."
Gainey, meanwhile, will continue to work the phones. The Vincent Lecavalier trade route is not really a clear option. It's more like a minefield. For starters, it's not clear the Lightning ownership group would sign off on moving its franchise player. It's tested the waters, to be sure, but a final decision has yet to be made, if ever, on that front. And besides, if the asking price includes star blueliner Andrei Markov, plus three or four other assets, forget it. The Habs can't afford to lose their top defenseman no matter what.
Either way, keep an eye on Gainey over the next four weeks; he won't stand idly by and see this Habs ship sink without a fight, especially in the team's centennial season.
In New York, there are whispers about Tom Renney's job as coach. That's bogus in our mind. The man is a great head coach. He didn't get stupid overnight. It's his boss who deserves much of the blame. Sather was a busy man last summer, but the moves have so far not worked in the least.
As of Tuesday afternoon, the Rangers were tied for dead last in the NHL with only 2.35 goals per game. Simply mind-boggling. Some of it comes from the fact Jaromir Jagr and Martin Straka are dearly missed, but it also has to do with an average blue-line corps that can't get the puck on the sticks of the forwards.
Aside from an all-world goaltender in Lundqvist, who must be counting the days to Vancouver 2010 so he can have something to play for again, this is a Rangers team without a real identity -- a mishmash of salaries and faces that haven't come together.
Sather must now fix it. Somehow.