Desperate times for Canadiens

STEVE BUFFERY, SUN MEDIA

, Last Updated: 5:53 PM ET

MONTREAL -- Playing for the Montreal Canadiens is tough at the best of time for the gentlemen who don Le Blue-Blanc-et-Rouge.

But when the team is struggling, as it is right now, it can be downright unbearable.

Instead of preparing for a run deep into the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Canadiens are barely holding on to a playoff position. The goaltending situation is up in the air. Many of the team's top players have been suspended or benched for one reason or another this season. There have been media reports of players associating with an organization crime figure. The coach, Guy Carbonneau, was fired a couple of weeks ago by the GM Bob Gainey who took over the coaching duties.

And this madness is all happening in the 100th anniversary of the proud franchise.

And yet, one of the first questions fired at one of the first players off the ice yesterday, following a late afternoon practice at the Bell Sports Complex in suburban Brossard, had nothing to do with how the team is playing and everything to do with the politics of playing in Quebec, which has become one of the longest-running sideshows in pro sports.

Forward Christopher Higgins was asked about Canadiens president Pierre Boivin commenting earlier in the day that the next head coach would definitely be someone who spoke French.

"I really don't care," a visibly annoyed Higgins said. "I don't think it's a big issue in this room. For the organization, the city, the culture, obviously it's a bigger issue. But I guess it's probably good (the new coach) can speak French because he'd start off getting a lot of heat before he even got the job."

For the visiting Maple Leafs, who will face off against the Canadiens at the Bell Centre, tonight's game is all about playing for pride and respectability.

For the Canadiens, the game means almost everything. Montreal holds the final playoff berth with 81 points, just one point ahead of the Florida Panthers. The Habs are a point behind the New York Rangers and two points back of the Carolina Hurricanes. Montreal has a game in hand on New York and two on Carolina.

"Desperation yes," Gainey said of his team's situation. "We're in with a group of teams (fighting for a playoff spot), and we're the one that has been losing ground. So we have a challenge to retool our attitude. It is desperate."

In was a shock when Gainey fired Carbonneau with 16 games left in the season.

Yes, the Habs were struggling, but had just won five of their past seven. Since taking over behind the bench, the Habs have gone 1-2-2 under Gainey, including a 5-4 loss in Ottawa on Thursday night.

One problem is Carey Price. The club's so-called goaltender of the future has struggled at times this season and, in fact, was replaced by backup Jaroslav Halak in the second period of Thursday's game after giving up four goals on 15 shots.

Halak will get the start tonight as his team has to take full advantage of the fact that it plays four consecutive home games against inferior competition (Toronto, Atlanta, Tampa Bay and Buffalo) and could use three wins during that span to put themselves in the driver's seat for a playoff spot.

As well, Gainey is expected to bench the club's third-leading scorer Andrei Kostitsyn tonight, as the Belarusian has played with little enthusiasm since being named as one of the three players linked to Pasquale Mangiola, a member of an organized crime organization.

STEVE.BUFFERY@SUNMEDIA.CA


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