Slumping sides clash as Canadiens take on Penguins


Two teams whose playoff hopes have been dimming by the game meet Thursday when the Montreal Canadiens visit the Pittsburgh Penguins.

Pittsburgh sits eight points off the last Eastern Conference wild-card position, with Montreal another four points back, so the matchup is critical.

The Canadiens are coming off a 3-2 home loss against the Buffalo Sabres on Wednesday, a game in which Montreal blew two one-goal leads and gave up a short-handed goal for the deciding tally.

That left Montreal with three straight defeats, five in its past six games. In those five setbacks, the Canadiens yielded 24 goals.

“There’s stuff that we need to clean up (on defense),” said Canadiens captain Nick Suzuki, who had his point streak halted at 10 games on Wednesday. “You can’t give up a short-handed goal.”

In Buffalo, the Canadiens faced a club that sits between them and Pittsburgh in the Eastern Conference standings, one of those games that a team with even faint hopes of a playoff berth probably needs to win.

“Yeah, we want to win those games … and I thought we did a lot of good things,” Suzuki said.

The Canadiens get another shot Thursday at another struggling team trying to claw past multiple teams into a wild-card spot.

Montreal has dropped both games played against the Penguins this season, 4-3 in a shootout at home on Dec. 13 and then 3-2 in overtime at Pittsburgh on Jan. 27.

Canadiens defenseman Jordan Harris returned for the Buffalo game after missing three games because of a concussion.

The Penguins also have a good chance of getting a player back from a concussion on Thursday. Center Noel Acciari has missed the past six games.

Acciari, the fourth-line center and top penalty killer, has three goals this season and can’t be counted on to provide the kind of spark Pittsburgh needs.

Scoring has been a problem for the Penguins, especially on the power play, which ranks 30th in the NHL at 13.5 percent.

The Penguins have lost two in a row (0-1-1) and five of the past six (1-4-1), including a 5-4 overtime defeat against the visiting New York Islanders on Tuesday.

Still, they keep preaching a faith in themselves.

“At this point, you don’t have any other option,” Pittsburgh winger Bryan Rust said. “I feel like if you’re going to make things happen, you’ve got to believe things are going to happen, and you’ve got to know that we have it in this (locker) room.

“If you’re thinking otherwise, that’s not going to be very helpful at all.”

The Penguins pointed to what happened Tuesday as proof of that belief. They came back from a two-goal, third-period deficit before falling in overtime.

“It shows the resolve that we have,” Pittsburgh defenseman Ryan Graves said. “It’s good that we don’t go into a shell and quit. But we don’t want to be clawing back in every game.”

Nor can the Penguins afford to miss out on many points, including from overtime losses, from here on out.

“For sure we’ve got to find something here and try to string some wins together,” Pittsburgh defenseman Marcus Pettersson said.