With the glow of a magnificent All-Star weekend long faded, the Montreal Canadiens kicked off the unofficial second-half start to the season with a 5-3 loss to the Lightning in Tampa, with the Habs showing the same tendencies they exhibited during back-to-back losses heading into the All-Star break:

Shoddy goaltending, sloppy play in front of their net, a sputtering power play, and the inability to bury the puck.

So, after putting together an inspiring December run at a time when this team was hurting, the Canadiens are stumbling as regulars begin to return to action.  

Go figure.

Saku Koivu, who returned to action prior to the all-star break, was joined by Chris Higgins, who was back last night after a 19-game layoff with a shoulder injury.  Even Ryan O’Byrne was back in the lineup,  recalled to the big team after a solid 13-game stint with the Hamilton Bulldogs.  And the big defenceman finally showed some confidence out there, something he rarely did before his demotion.  

Higgins and Koivu were joined by Matt D’Agostini for most of the night.  And for most of the night, the three could generate little in the way of offence.  Then again, you could say that for two of the other three forward lines as well.

True, the Canadiens exploded out of the blocks with a 20-shot barrage on Mike Smith in the opening period, outshooting the Bolts 20-7 in the process.  But they found themselves clinging to a one-goal lead on goals by Maxim Lapierre, his 9th, and Alex Kovalev, his 13th.  The goal by Kovalev was a gift after Smith put the puck on the stick of the 2009 NHL All-Star MVP, thanks to a sloppy clearing attempt, and Kovalev connected.  The writing was on the wall in this one when, late in that period, the Canadiens blew a 5-on-3 that went on more almost a minute and a half.

Once again, the only line that was a threat out there was the so-called fourth line of Lapierre-Guillaume Latendresse-Tom Kostopoulos.  That’s because, once again, the Canadiens’ best players failed to be their best players.  The line of Lang and the two Kostitsyn bro’s?  Invisible.

In the end, it was a second-period meltdown that did the Canadiens in, as the Bolts took advantage of a flopping Carey Price with a three-goal explosion on only six shots to make it 4-2 Tampa.  Latendresse got one back with his 9th of the season, a goal that was originally credited to Lapierre.  But it was much too little, much too late.

Let’s hope the play of Ryan O’Byrne last night was a sign of things to come for this young defenceman, for Montreal’s sake.  Because the Habs, after finally tightening things up defensively in recent weeks, have been giving up way too many goals in recent games:  18 in their last four starts.  Other disturbing statistics surround the plus-minus play of some of the team’s D-men.  Over his last seven games, Roman Hamrlik is -8.  Over HIS last seven games, Josh Gorges, is -9.  Patrice Brisebois was in that neighbourhood, as well, until he was yanked from the lineup to make room for O’Byrne last night.  But all indications are that Brisebois will be back in the lineup tomorrow night when the Canadiens close out this five-game road trip in Sunrise against the Florida Panthers. 

I’d like to know:  why?  Why would coach Guy Carbonneau want to put Patrice Brisebois back in the lineup after Ryan O’Bryne has finally put together a solid 60-minutes of hockey for the first time in almost two months (as a member of the Habs, at least).

We might begin to find out the answer to that, and other questions, as GM Bob Gainey takes a good, hard look at the talent he has on this hockey team, with the March 4th trade deadline just five weeks away.

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