Four years ago, at the bitter end of a terrible season, Guy Lafleur said the Canadiens “have to get some better players. There’s no first line, second line, third line. I think they have four fourth lines.”

Those words could accurately describe the team the Canadiens put on the ice in their 2-1 loss to the Tampa Lightning Thursday night.

With Brendan Gallagher joining Jonathan Drouin, Joel Armia and Paul Byron on the injury list, among the forwards the only true offensive threats the Canadiens had were Tomas Tatar, Max Domi and Phillip Danault. Of the remaining nine forwards, three were rookies and the other six would be considered fourth liners on a competitive hockey club. They all worked hard but, with little scoring touch from the group, all but six of the 39 shots directed at the Lightning net were easily handled by goaltender Andrei Vasilevskiy.

THAT SINKING FEELING

This was the Canadiens fifteenth loss in their twenty-two games since mid-November. Tampa now jumps into a six point lead on them for the third and final Atlantic Division playoff berth. The Lightning also have two games in hand.  The Canadiens are also are seven points, and five teams behind Philadelphia who are in control of the Eastern Conference’s second and final wild card spot.

At season’s mid-point the Canadiens have 42 points (18-17-6) seven fewer points than the forty-one game mark of last season (22-14-5).

NO COMPLAINTS

Nick Cousins has never scored more than 12 goals in any season. He wound up on the first line replacing 30-goal scorer Gallagher. Playing with better forwards he recorded five shots on goal and drew the first assist on the Canadiens only goal.  As one might expect from someone more noted for his defensive work, most of Cousins shots were easily handled by Vasilevskiy.

The lack of finish was the story of the game.  To a man the Canadiens put in a harder night’s work than the Lightning and earned a much better result than they got.

BRAIN CRAMP

Nobody is a mind-reader but one can only wonder where Carey Price’s head space has been since the Christmas break.

He couldn’t be faulted in Tampa’s first goal which came in the game’s opening minute but later he made two careless puck handling errors.  The first produced the game-winning goal caused by a too casual pass to Victor Mete that Brayden Point gobbled up to set up Nikita Kucherov.

Price again was caught outside the crease fumbling a pass late in the second period. He got away with that one when Mitchell Stephens missed an open net.  This lack of attention to detail has been his recent hallmark.  Ultimately Price allowed only two goals which, if there were any offense to back him up, should have been good enough to win.

ROOKIE WATCH

Another good offensive effort from Ryan Poehling. When all of the injuries come back, the Canadiens will have a big decision to make. He logged just over 10 minutes on the third line with Kotkaniemi and Weal.

Nick Susuki gave us another in a long series of strong efforts  Suzuki logged over twenty minutes for the second straight game; and at 20:43 a career high.  He was named the game’s second star.

Interesting note; Claude Julien had Poehling and Suzuki out together on the power play, Poehling being the Gallagher replacement.

Playing in his second NHL game, Lukas Vejdemo’s ice time increased to 9:18. He posted two shots on goal, one of them an excellent scoring chance.   Basically he didn’t create any problems for himself or his teammates which is all good.

ALSO WORTH MENTIONING

….The Canadiens are getting a lot of offense out of Max Domi these days. He earned a belated assist on Petry’s goal giving him at least a point in his eighth straight game (6g, 5a). Two of his four shots were of the ‘high danger’ variety.

….The Canadiens had only six high danger chances among their 39 shots.  Eight of 23 shots were listed as dangerous.

….Dale Weise is as aware as anyone that his call-up from Laval may be his final chance to return to the NHL. Playing in the league for the first time in ten months, he took advantage of the opportunity by doing what he does well, that is be physical, excel in a checking role and protect his teammates. He fought Lightning heavyweight Pat Maroon after he went after Domi, only the third Canadiens fighting major this season. Playing on Nate Thompson’s fourth line he set up Vejdemo for a dangerous scoring chance. The Thompson line spent a large part of the night dealing with Tampa’s top line.

….Jeff Petry scored the Canadiens only goal and led the club with six shots. Like Domi, he’s riding a hot streak with 9 points his last 6 games (3 goals, 6 assists)

….Suzuki was a centre and Domi the winger on the second line. Suzuki won 60% of his faceoffs (9w/6L).

….With it’s long road trip, December was a difficult month. January isn’t going to be any easier.  Starting with this game and leading up to the all-star break the Canadiens are playing ten games in seventeen days.  Twice over that stretch they will play back-to-back games.

….It won’t help the offense but after six months of dickering the Canadiens finally acquired defenseman Marco Scandella from the Buffalo Sabres in return for a fourth round draft choice. The Montreal native has always had good underlying statistics but always seems to be in and out of favour with his various coaches. He’s a left shot who’s contract is up at the end of the season. At worst, he’s an improvement over Mike Reilly who was shipped to Ottawa to make room for him.  Scandella is a nephew of Canadiens broadcaster Sergio Momesso.

MOVING ON

It doesn’t get easier. The Canadiens host Pittsburgh Saturday night then will face back-to-back games versus Winnipeg Monday and at Detroit Tuesday. They close out next week at the Bell Centre Thursday against Winnipeg followed by a Saturday night meeting with the Senators in Ottawa.