The Canadiens stumbled to back-to-back losses for the first time in almost five weeks, following a 5-2 setback  to the Devils in New Jersey last night.  The defeat came 24 hours after the Habs felll 4-2 in Atlanta.

Montreal’s last losing streak came in mid-December, when the team dropped three in a row to Tampa, Washington and Carolina.  Since then, beginning with a 5-2 win over the Flyers on Dec. 18, the Canadiens reeled off a record of 11-4-1.  That was until they came up flat against both the Thrashers and the Devils this week.

The loss in Jersey came with Carey Price back in goal for his first start since Dec. 30.  And it also came with Saku Koivu back in the lineup after the Captain missed 17 games with a high ankle sprain.  Koivu figured on the scoresheet in his 12:58 of ice time, picking up an assist on a goal by Josh Gorges.  Matt D’Agostini scored the other goal for the Canadiens, who, for the second straight night, were forced to play catch-up hockey.

The Canadiens wrote was has become a familiar script for this team in New Jersey, which has been a graveyard for Montreal teams over the years.  The Habs are 1-10-1-1 in their last 13 games in the swamp.  And in the Devils, they were facing a team that had won four straight behind the splendid goaltending of Scott Clemmensen.

Although you can’t take anything away from Montreal’s record of 27-13-6 going into the all-star break, good for fourth place in the Eastern Conference, their uninspired play against Atlanta and New Jersey can not be ignored.  Neither can the defensive lapses that have again begun to plague this team.

Two nights ago,  Josh Gorges, Francis Boullion and Roman Hamrlik combined for a -6, with Gorges, who appears to have run out of steam in recent games, a -3.

Last night, it was Patrice Brisebois and all-star Andrei Markov who’se plus-minus numbers jumped out on the scoresheet: Markov a -2, Brisebois a -3.

None of the above-mentioned players were alone, however, when it comes to the soft play that punctuated the team’s performance in Atlanta and New Jersey.  Coach Guy Carbonneau can only hope that the all-star break will cure what what was ailing his team during this mini two-game road trip.

Meanwhile, when the Canadiens do return to action Tuesday in Tampa after the all-star festivities in Montreal have concluded, they’ll do so without the services of Kyle Chipchura and Gregory Stewart.  With Koivu returning to action and Chris Higgins not far behind him, it’s no surprise that the Habs today returned Chipchura and Stewart to the Hamilton Bulldogs.

Stewart would appear to have a future with this team, thanks to his gritty and feisty style of play.  He is purely a victim of the numbers game.  However, you have to wonder if the door has finally closed on Chipchura and a career with the big team.  With two assists and a -3 performance in the seven games he played since being recalled from the Bulldogs, Chipchura keeps dropping further down the prospects’ depth chart, while others like Matt D’Agostini and Max Pacioretty continue to make a strong case for themselves.

Strong enough to stay with the Canadiens when players like Alex Tanguay and Georges Laraque are ready to return to action?  That may depend on what GM Bob Gainey does, or doesn’t do, leading up to the Mar. 4 trade deadline.

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