Even during the three consecutive wins that put them back in the driver's seat to claim a berth in the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens went through a dangerous trend for a team that expects to make some noise in the second season.
Their habit of surrendering the game's first goal finally caught up to them in Wednesday's 5-1 loss to the Ottawa Senators and is a focal point heading into Thursday night's road clash with the North Division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs (33-13-6, 72 points).
The Canadiens (24-19-9, 57 points), who sit fourth in the division, likely will punch a ticket to the playoffs but now must stop falling behind early.
"We've shown our character battling back, but it would be nice to play with a lead," defenseman Jeff Petry said. "We have to make sure we're ready to show up and winning our battles."
The Canadiens fell short in that regard in Ottawa.
"We knew they were going to compete and work hard, and we weren't ready to match that," Petry said. "That can't happen, especially at this point of the year. We can't have one game with bad habits slipping in. We have to sharpen up and make sure we're on top of our game down the stretch and have that momentum on our side going into the playoffs."
The Canadiens will play a pair of games in Toronto before returning home to finish the regular season with two games against the Edmonton Oilers.
Toronto has won five of eight meetings with Montreal this season, although the Canadiens won a 3-2 overtime game in their most recent contest, on Monday, and these games could be a preview of the first round of the playoffs.
"Be ready to start. It's pretty simple," forward Josh Anderson said. "We've got to come and be ready to perform. It's a big game. Playing against the Leafs, who can be a playoff contender and it can be a matchup, we have to be hard and physical and play hard for 60 minutes."
The Maple Leafs, who sit six points ahead of the second-place Edmonton Oilers, haven't played since having their five-game winning streak snapped by the Canadiens to kick off this week.
Even though they were disappointed with the loss, the Maple Leafs are even-keeled. After all, they control their destiny in the standings.
"Obviously, we would have liked to have come out with the two points and not go into overtime," said forward Auston Matthews, who leads the league with 39 goals and has tallied six times against Montreal this season. "We gave ourselves a chance but came up short. This one stings a bit, but (we're) moving on and we'll take our one point and go on to the next game."
The Maple Leafs saw both good and bad news in the interim. Forward Nick Foligno was injured in Monday's clash and won't play due to an upper-body injury. Since being acquired from the Columbus Blue Jackets, Foligno has been skating on a line with Matthews and Mitch Marner.
On the flip side, goaltender Frederik Andersen, who hasn't played since March 19 due to a knee injury, is pegged to play on Thursday for their American Hockey League affiliate, the Toronto Marlies.
As well, forwards Zach Hyman and Riley Nash both practiced on Wednesday, key steps to returning from injury. They're not expected to play until next week, but the club hopes they'll skate in a tune-up game before the playoffs begin.
"Having guys like that back gets everybody excited," forward Jason Spezza said. "We know what's around the corner with the playoffs, and we want to be as healthy as possible."
--Field Level Media