PRE-SEASON Game 7: Montreal 0 Tampa Bay 4  (Bell Centre)

Written by Rick Stephens,

Tampa Bay Lightning's Steven Stamkos (91) scores past Montreal Canadiens goalie Peter Budaj (30) during the first period of a preseason NHL hockey game, Thursday, Sept. 29, 2011, in Montreal. (AP Photo/The Canadian Press, Paul Chiasson)

MONTREAL, QC. — Brutal. Just brutal.

At the conclusion of a game where the Canadiens looked like a team that will be sitting on the sidelines come April, I had this short exchange with Canadiens prospect Morgan Ellis.

Ellis: 20-5-1 in NHL12 with the Habs, great start!
All Habs: Can you transfer some of that success to your teammates?
Ellis: That’s a pretty solid start! And I’ll see what I can do.

If it were only that easy.

In fact, on paper, or indeed in EA Sports NHL12, the Montreal Canadiens appear to be a decent team. Most pundits will tell you that the line-up has been upgraded in terms of size and skill from last season.

Before the game, @HabsLaughs sent the following message on Twitter:

[blackbirdpie url=”!/HabsLaughs/status/119483209762340864″]

I’m not interested in singling out Mike, he is a good guy and an optimistic Habs fan. His opinion is shared by many — the 2011-12 version of the Canadiens with three offensive lines should be able to score at will. At least on paper, or in NHL12.

But for some reason, the Canadiens are not playing to their potential. Could it be the skills of the guy who is manipulating the buttons on the game controller? Ellis seems to be doing fine, quite well in fact.

Let me assure you that I understand that there is an enormous difference between sitting on a couch manipulating a team, and being behind a NHL bench. I’m simply illustrating the point that there seems to be a disconnect between the players on the ice and the guy who is paid to get the best performance possible from them. Is it a mismatch between the style of play and the skills of the players, or is it an issue of communication, or perhaps a combination of both?

Whatever the problem is, I’m not sure that many fans will be content with watching their team sputter along all season when the expectation is that the Habs are capable of so much more under the right tutelage.

Some fans will be content to write this game off as another meaningless pre-season affair. That would be seven so-called meaningless games in which the Canadiens have been unable to register a victory in regulation time. They are convinced that once the regular season starts, a powerful phoenix will rise from the ashes of the exhibition schedule.

But is it that easy?

During the first intermission of tonight’s game, Steven Stamkos said that the Tampa Bay Lightning “want to get it going now” realizing that they “just can’t turn the switch on” once the season starts. It was a wise thing to say from one of the league’s brightest young stars. Or perhaps he was just repeating words that he has heard many times from the coaching staff.

You play like you practise.

I suppose that it would be easy as well to put the blame on Peter Budaj. There’s no question that the Canadiens backup goaltender was awful. How much longer can Canadiens coach Jacques Martin continue to repeat the mantra that Budaj is a significant upgrade over Alex Auld?

Despite giving up four goals, it could have been a whole lot worse. Two Lightning disallowed goals, by Vincent Lecavalier and Tom Pyatt, likely would have stood with the aid of video review in the regular season.

Budaj is not blessed with a healthy helping of natural goaltending talent. In addition, his mechanics are messed up — dropping down early, a lack of rebound control, and painfully slow recovery time. But it would be unfair to pin the loss solely on Budaj — particularly when the offense couldn’t get a single goal on Tampa goalie Dwayne Roloson.

It may not be terribly relevant but Roloson is just two weeks shy of his 42nd birthday.

Stellar goaltending can hide a lot of warts — and that’s exactly what Carey Price did for the Canadiens last season. The Habs were 22nd in the league with 2.60 goals per game. During the pre-season, the offense is scoring a paltry 1.86 goals per game.

Some of you will shrug and say, so the Canadiens can’t score with a complement of AHL’ers; big deal! Thing is, the top-9 alignment tonight — the scoring lines — were just a player or two away from the line-up we will see all season long. Besides, it was regulars like David Desharnais, Andrei Kostitsyn and P.K. Subban who struggled the most.

It’s also difficult to ignore that the Canadiens came up empty despite having a 5-on-3 advantage for 1:53 in the first period. I suppose that you can chalk that up to a power-play that is out of sync early in the year. But how about the fact that down 3-0 in the third period, the Canadiens managed just two shots on goal?

At that rate, Roloson could play another five years.

It’s early, let’s not be too critical yet, right? The coaching staff has just cracked the shrinkwrap on Canadiens12 and is still figuring out what they have. But with only one demo session left until the tournament begins, we should expect some all night sessions from the Habs brass to quickly accelerate the learning curve on their shiny new toy.

Plus / Minus

▲ Josh Gorges: He gave us a scare when Gorges went down awkwardly but the knee held. Gorges has been rock solid in the pre-season and will likely be coach Martin’s go-to guy when games start for real.

▲ Chris Campoli: Not spectacular by any measure, but Campoli played confidently and moved the puck well. It was a better than expected result for a player who has missed most of the pre-season tune-up.

► Number one line: It’s hard to toss out a plus to offensive players who couldn’t make the goal light turn red, but Tomas Plekanec, Erik Cole and Mike Cammalleri were adept at creating scoring chances. Unfortunately, they had no finish tonight.

► Scott Gomez: It was important for Gomez to continue his strong effort in the pre-season at home. He looked to be doing just that until Gomez let Brett Connolly walk right past him on a faceoff, and in for a goal.

▼ Raphael Diaz: It is getting clearer that Diaz would benefit from at least a half season in Hamilton. A lack of patience resulted in numerous turnovers in his own zone.

▼ David Desharnais: It was not a good night for Desharnais who is either showy rust from a lack of action or still hampered by his groin injury.

The Canadiens will practise on Friday morning before heading to Quebec City for a game with the same Tampa Bay Lightning on Saturday night.

All Habs game stars

1. Josh Gorges
2. Erik Cole
3. Chris Campoli

  • Besides, it was regulars like David Desharnais, Andrei Kostitsyn and P.K. Subban who struggled the most.

    No argument, these guys struggled.

    But (and without being seen as an apologist or an “It’s only pre-season!” guy), let’s be honest – 7 pre season games have been played. How many games have those 3 players played of those 7?

    By my reckoning (having gone back and looked at the lineups so far this preseason) it was Desharnais’ first game, P.K has played one other time (Game #2 vs Sabres), then been out with an injury and Kostitsyn played once (Game #5 in Halifax) after watching from the stands as prospects were tried out (and then sat out Game #6).

    Should we be concerned? Sure. Maybe Martin should have iced a closer to full strength team in Game #5 or #6, to give them “match fitness” (as it’s called in the primary winter sport where I’m from, rugby league) and develop the chemistry required for the offensive lines to really gel. But I wouldn’t say it’s time to push the panic button yet.