The Montreal Canadiens are victims of their own success this season, or at least they were until they stopped being successful.
After finishing last in the Eastern Conference just last year, up until they clinched a playoff berth in mid-April, the Habs were in contention for first place. At that point, any Habs fan would have told you they’d be disappointed with anything less than the franchise’s 25th Stanley Cup, despite there being 15 other teams with just as good of a chance in the running.
And, then just like that, much quicker than the team turned things around the first time, a horrible stretch saw them go 1-5, getting blown out by teams much lower than them in the standings.
Many of those same fans are now acting with complete and utter indifference in regard to the team’s playoff chances—admittedly potentially insincerely, maybe hoping to somehow reverse-jinx the team or something.
In any case, if someone had told them entering this shortened season that the Habs would make the playoffs, they either would have:
- Given that person a funny look and also glanced around for a quick and safe exit strategy so as to prevent themselves from any physical harm, seeing as they would have been talking to a clinically insane escaped mental patient,
- Still been skeptical and asked just what the Habs will eventually be giving up for Sidney Crosby to accomplish such a feat, or
- Simply been grateful that they would soon again see their favorite team make the postseason.
This whole issue wouldn’t even be one had the Habs just slightly overperformed and snuck into the postseason by the skin of their teeth like they usually do. However, with the team having earned the fourth seed (and the second still up for grabs), Habs fans really don’t have that luxury anymore, to not care. It’s almost in Montrealers’ genetics to care a little too much…OK a lot too much.
Back When the Bruins Weren't Big and Bad...Just Bad
Just look at what happened when the Habs last finished with home-ice advantage and atop the conference. They were heavily favored, nearly squandered a 3-1 first-round series lead to the hated Boston Bruins, but then won Game 7, only to see downtown Montreal streets lit aflame by rioters “celebrating” the triumph.
Even Vancouver Canucks fans had the decency to wait for the end of the Stanley Cup Final. Granted, there would be no Stanley Cup or even third round for the Habs back in 2008. They lost in five games in the second round to the Philadelphia Flyers, but I nonetheless hesitate to call the geniuses behind the rioting psychics, or, well, in all honesty even the least bit smart.
No one had any way of knowing that first-round victory would be the last one for the Habs that season, and yet fans and opportunists alike saw and took the chance to flaunt the team’s mediocrity of just barely beating a severely outgunned opponent.
Who knows what would have been in store had the Habs actually won another round? Won it all? The fact is, just the like fans of any other team, with even the slightest sniff of success Montrealers tend to get carried away, assume their team is one of destiny and start planning the Stanley Cup parade.
It’s slightly worse in Montreal considering the team’s history, their league-leading 24 championships and the 20 years it’s been since the last one. Fans are getting just a tad antsy and they want another one. Now, if possible. If not, that’s OK. We can wait the two months for these playoffs to end.
Do the Habs Have It?
Right now, following this recent slide, there’s understandable confusion within the ranks. Are the Habs still good? Are they as bad as last year? Somewhere in between? Most importantly, how far do the Habs need to go before the season is considered a success, if it isn’t already?
There is a cynical school of thought out there that argues the Habs are really just slightly improved from last year and that they played over their heads the entire season, crumbling at the first sign of adversity (defenseman Alexei Emelin’s knee injury in early April, for example, after which the team is 3-6).
From that perspective, this season has been an unmitigated disaster as the team missed out on a high pick in a deep draft just to be bounced early on in the playoffs.
Of course, there are certain flaws with this reasoning. For starters, before Emelin got injured, the Habs had played through significant injuries to Raphael Diaz, Rene Bourque, Brandon Prust and Colby Armstrong, the latter three even bringing similar games to Emelin’s physical style of play to the table when healthy.
In fact, not only did the Habs still play well without them in the lineup, but their performance didn’t drop off either.
Additionally, Emelin is a part of the team. If, with him, the team is great, the team will be great again once he returns. He hasn’t been traded away. He hasn’t been shipped back to Russia. And he certainly hasn’t been magically transformed into Davis Drewiske never to change back. Clearly, there would be signs of Emelin’s game in him if he had.
Ultimately, the argument that the team isn’t a great one falls flat. As such, for all intents and purposes, this team is capable of great things, as the Habs have already accomplished their fair share of great things this season.
So, when general manager Marc Bergevin states his goal is to “bring a first-class team to Montreal, not just for one year, but for many years to come (via the Montreal Gazette),” it’s curious on a few different levels.
Living with Mistakes Made
While there’s nothing wrong with wanting to build a dynasty, in a league of 30 teams and incredible parity, in which the chances of championship are so small to begin with and vary greatly from year to year, if you have a great team one season you should go for it.
Considering the Habs' early and mid-season dominance, general manager Marc Bergevin arguably made a mistake not trading away lower-tier prospects and mid-round picks that, chances are, wouldn’t have panned out anyway, for added depth and size at the deadline—hypothetical moves that might have averted this recent late-season slide.
However, that’s all in the past. Nothing can change what went down on deadline day, and the future is all everyone should be thinking about right now, but more so these next few months, if the Habs are lucky to last that long, rather than Bergevin’s “many years to come.”
Rationally speaking, this recent streak of bad hockey is likely just a slump from which the Habs will recover, but will it be too late—down 0-3 in a first-round series, for example—when they do?
How Far Is Far Enough?
It’s hard to define a successful season by the postseason round reached. It’s an incredibly arbitrary measure of success, unless of course we’re talking about the fourth and winning that one as well.
It’s safe to say at this point, if the Habs get that far, it will be beyond a pleasant surprise. That would undeniably constitute the end to a successful season, but what if the Habs reach the championship round and lose? Worse yet, what if they lose to the Columbus Blue Jackets in four games?
Evaluating the season truly depends on how the Habs go out, if at all. That’s why everyone’s so up in arms over the Habs’ recent losses. It isn’t that they’ve been losing, it’s how they’ve been losing that truly matters.
Looking back, many wrote off this season before it began. However, it’s incredibly illogical to consider it a failure when it isn’t even over and so much can still happen in the playoffs. Considering anything happening in the playoffs is still a possibility, consider the season in turn a success at least up until now.