The Montreal Canadiens are exhibiting all the signs of being a team that has lost its identity at the worst possible time of the season.
Sure, the standings still show Montreal sitting atop the Atlantic Division -- with a 31-19-8 record and a six-point lead on the surging Ottawa Senators and Boston Bruins -- but that's largely thanks to its strong, 13-1-1 start. Since then, the Canadiens have gone a pedestrian 18-18-7 in their past 42 games. They are 3-6-1 over their past 10 -- and been shut out in three of their past five. They have been outscored 20-6 in the seven losses.
So, after playing eight games in 13 days, the Habs head into their five-day bye week in clear need of a break.
What has gone wrong? Injuries to key players is one reason why Montreal, which looked primed for a deep run through the Stanley Cup at one point, has derailed. Eighteen players have spent time on the injured list. But the Canadiens are completely healthy now, so there are clearly other causes for this tailspin.
Montreal goaltender Carey Price -- who missed most of last season because of a knee injury -- admitted the team is not playing "Canadiens hockey."
"We just seem to have lost our identity," Price said after his team's 4-0 loss to the Bruins on Sunday night at TD Garden. "We just have to take a step back and get refocused."
The Canadiens have five days to find that focus before their next game against the Winnipeg Jets on Saturday at home at Bell Centre.
"We've got to come back with a lot of energy. It's going to take everybody doing the right thing over the break to take care of their body to make sure that we come back and make a push," said Canadiens captain Max Pacioretty. "Everyone's just got to dig deeper. It's easy to come up with excuses -- people talk about the schedule or fatigue, but every [team] has to deal with the same stuff. You've just got to look in the mirror and man up and just worry about your own game."
Restless fans are calling for Montreal general manager Marc Bergevin to fire coach Michel Therrien and make trades. Making a coaching change in the midst of the regular season can give a team a much-needed jolt -- just ask the Bruins, who fired coach Claude Julien on Feb. 7 and have won three in a row since -- but it's unlikely Bergevin will go that route, not with the team still leading the division. If the Canadiens continue to unravel, however, there will no doubt be changes.
"We need to regroup," Therrien said. "The break is going to be good for us, physically and mentally. There's going to be 24 games left for us, so the break is coming at the right time."
Julien, who won a Stanley Cup in Boston in 2001 and coached the Canadiens from 2002-2006, has one year remaining on his contract. There's no way Bruins team president Cam Neely would allow a team in the same division, especially the Canadiens, permission to speak with Julien.
It seems more like that changes on the ice will be forthcoming. Colorado Avalanche GM Joe Sakic -- and two members of his scouting staff -- attended Montreal's loss to the Bruins on Sunday night. Colorado will likely be a big seller at the trade deadline, and both the Bruins and Canadiens could use some help.
Montreal's scoring has been lackluster of late and only Alexander Radulov (42 points, a team-leading 28 assists) and Pacioretty (team-best 28 goals, 50 points) are regularly registering goals.
"We need contributions from more than Radulov and Pacioretty," Therrien said. "This is like seven games that we haven't scored 5-on-5 without one of those two guys, so we need contributions from a lot more players."
Former Canadiens forward and 1986 Stanley Cup winner Chris Nilan believes Montreal needs help up the middle.
"They're off," Nilan said. "Listen, they'll get in the playoffs. But I don't know how long they'll last with the way they're playing now. The goaltender could get hot again, and they could get that playoff pump and do pretty good, but I don't think they could sustain it to the end. I just think they're not strong enough up the middle. Right now, the way Price is playing, I'd be worried. I think he'll bounce back, but up the middle is my biggest concern."
Price, who gave up four goals on 26 shots in the loss to the Bruins, admitted that the condensed schedule -- a by-product of the World Cup of Hockey and the new bye-week format -- has induced some fatigue for both him and his teammates.
"But everybody's dealing with a tough schedule, so it's not really much of an excuse," said Price, whose .917 save percentage this season is below his career average of .920. "I definitely think having the break is going to be re-energizing."
Sunday's loss in Boston was a microcosm of each team's current mindset. The Canadiens are on their heels, while the Bruins -- who struggled earlier this season -- are on a roll under interim coach Bruce Cassidy. Boston captain Zdeno Chara has played through every kind of streak during his 17-year career and says the formula for righting the ship is straightforward.
"Show up every night," he said. "Be an every-night team, not a sometime team. I know sounds pretty simple, but if you compete and you battle every night, you're going to find your identity. You'll have nights when things aren't going to go right, and you're going to get scored on, and mistakes are going to happen. That's just the human factor of the game. That's hockey. But as long as you have guys competing and battling, you're going to be OK."
The Canadiens need to come out of the break recharged and ready to compete every game.
"Every team goes through ups and downs," Therrien said. "The most important thing for us is to refocus after the break and make sure we finish strong."