MONTREAL - The Montreal Canadiens weren't a big offensive power to begin with but now their scoring has come to a standstill.
A 2-0 loss Saturday night to the visiting Washington Capitals marked the third straight game the Canadiens have been shut out, following losses of 2-0 to Buffalo and 7-0 to Boston last week.
It is the first time they have been blanked three games in a row since October, 1949. If it happens again when the Atlanta Thrashers visit on Tuesday night, it will match the team record of four straight shutout losses set in 1928.
It was the ninth time this season they failed to score a goal, tying the team record set five times previously, most recently in 2000-01.
"It's not good stuff, it's not fun," said forward Michael Cammalleri. "But it's time to stick together, lean on one another."
The curious part is that the defeats came after the team's biggest offensive outburst of the season, an 8-1 victory in Minnesota. Since Tom Pyatt's goal at 13:55 of the third period of that game, no more have gone in.
What concerns the Canadiens is that they have not been stoned by hot goalies. They're just not getting many chances to score.
"Our execution has been a little poor with the puck and I guess that can be a factor," said Cammalleri, whose specialty is goal-scoring. "Passing seems to be off.
"We're not making many good, clean tape-to-tape passes. It's amazing how you break it down to simple things you can tell to 10 year old kids, but you make one tape-to-tape pass coming out of your end and you're probably getting through the zone. We seem to be hitting a lot of skates."
Coach Jacques Martin and his players agreed the team has abandoned their formula for winning—moving up the ice with quick, short passes and always having a player open to support the puck carrier. Instead, they've been trying to beat defences with long passes, especially cross-ice feeds that more often than not are intercepted and may turn into chances for the opposing team.
Normally, it is Montreal that feeds off opponents' mistakes in the neutral zone. The newly defensive-minded Capitals did it to them last night and held the Canadiens to a season-low 18 shots, making for an easy second career shutout for Braden Holtby.
They have also hurt themselves by taking needless rhythm-breaking penalties, especially early in games.
"I don't think we're playing very well in a few areas, like our discipline," added Cammalleri. "It starts with taking penalties.
"It's a tough way to play when we start all these games taxing ourselves shorthanded. And discipline as far as the way we're playing the game and our execution. What can I say? It hasn't been good."
For captain Brian Gionta, it's "a matter of finding a way to get our feet moving for each other without the puck.
"It's not a lack of effort. It's playing smart. Right now we're wasting too much energy and not exerting it when we need to. It's displaced energy. When you're making five or six foot passes it's a lot easier than making that 40 foot pass. That's what we got away from."
The Canadiens are also not getting much production from key players like Cammalleri, who has only 16 goals in 60 games, and especially centre Scott Gomez, who has only seven goals in 74 games and is a team-worst minus-16. With 26 goals, Gionta is on his average, and Tomas Plekanec isn't far off with 21, nor Andrei Kostitsyn with 19.
Gionta showed some hustle in the final minute when, with goaltender Carey Price pulled for an extra attacker, he made a sliding save on Nicklas Backstrom to prevent an empty-net goal.
Backstrom had assisted on a goal at 1:24 of the first period by Marco Sturm and at 16:19 of the third by Alexander Semin as the Capitals won for the 12th time in 14 games.
The Bell Centre crowd of 21,271 booed the Canadiens off the ice.
The club is still safely in playoff position with 87 points—seven more than ninth-place Carolina, who they will visit on Wednesday night before facing the Devils in New Jersey on Saturday.
But they have been caught for sixth place in the Eastern Conference by the New York Rangers and are only two points clear of eighth-place Buffalo.
"Let's forget about who is ahead of us or behind us," said Gomez, who shrugged off the personal boos he got from the crowd. "We have to worry about ourselves.
"We've got to come out next game like it's a Game 7."