Well, it's not quite time to panic, but the Canadiens' last three games have proven two indisputable facts. One: this is a team that does not win when it doesn't skate. Two: Roman Hamrlik is the difference between a team that's challenging for first in the conference and one that's steadily slipping down the ranks in the very close quarters of the Eastern Conference.
The Habs stopped skating against the Rangers two weeks ago. They sputtered in the third against Ottawa and nearly lost that one after holding a three-goal lead. They haven't skated for an entire game, or really, even a whole period in the last three against the Leafs, Sens and Lightning. Those two against the basement-dwellers translate to four points they would have bagged in January, which they've squandered now. It seems they forget those were the kind of squandered points that cost them a playoff berth last season. When you look like you're skating in quicksand, it doesn't take long before you start sinking. Whether the answer is benchings or a call-up (Lapierre for Chipchura?), something's gotta give. This is a busy month, and the team can't afford to take nights off. If this has been a slump, it must end immediately.
Part of the answer may be in Hamrlik's return. Without him, the team has lost four of its last five games. When he's missing, the twenty-five minutes of solid icetime he eats have to be filled by someone else. O'Byrne did a decent job last night, but Streit, Bouillon and especially Brisebois, are NOT in the same league on the boards or in clearing the zone as Hamrlik. And that's where the team has paid the price. Opposing forwards are setting up in the Habs' zone at will and badly outshooting them. Without Hamrlik, the defence looks very much like last year's, with very similar results.
The good news is we know the team can skate for entire games. We've seen it this season, and when it happens, they can beat anyone. They just have to be interested enough to do it. And, unlike last year, we know the D is suffering because Hamrlik and O'Byrne were out...not just because it's a terrible corps with no hope of improvement. Hopefully, Hamrlik will be ready to go against Florida and things will get back to normal before the damage gets into write-off territory.
Because, really, those who don't skate in the East will get lapped pretty quickly. And those who forget their history are bound to repeat it.