Ode to a Season: The 2010 Montreal Canadiens
As I sat watching the Canadiens trail the Philadelphia Flyers 3-1 during the second period of Monday night's Eastern Conference Final game five, something strange and unexpected happened.
The power went out.
In a city that lives and dies by the successes and failure of the Montreal Canadiens, it was more than a little amusing to hear the profanity-laden tirades of hockey fans across my neighborhood yelling at their TV sets and the local power company.
While the timing of the power outage might have been bad, I think that it was ultimately a merciful twist of fate.
A sign, maybe, that it was all over and time to turn out the lights.
So as I switched to my car to listen to the Canadiens lose the game 4-2 and get eliminated from the 2010 Stanley Cup Playoffs, I could not help but feel that despite the loss, the Habs had done something special this year.
As much as I wanted them to go on to the Stanley Cup finals, I felt that there was a lot of positives to take away from what they had accomplished this last off-season.
So where does this storied franchise go now?
With their playoff success this year, the expectations have surely gone up for a fanbase that had its closest whiff of the Cup since 1993.
But can the Habs meet or even surpass those expectations?
Keep in mind, the 2010 Canadiens were a team that finished with 88 points during the season and qualified for the playoffs by losing their final game in overtime.
Hardly the stuff of heroes.
But the Habs' first and subsequent second-round upsets of the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins have perhaps given us a glimpse of the future. Or have they raised the bar a little too high?
Let's take a look.
The 2009-2010 NHL season began with a bevy of questions marks for the Montreal Canadiens. With a completely revamped lineup, no captain, and a new head coach, it was really anyone's guess as to how this team would fare.
The Habs had added a mix of speed, skill, and highly priced contracts to their roster but seemed to be lacking in the size department.
Their goaltending was a question mark—as it always is in Montreal—with Price having yet to seize the starter's position and Halak possibly looking for greener pastures elsewhere.
The season started in Toronto against the Maple Leafs and the Habs lost Andrei Markov—a top-five defenseman in the league and arguably their best player—to a freak skate-cut injury.
The Markov injury got everyone thinking that the season was over for the Canadiens before it even truly began.
There was no way this team could make the playoffs, let alone compete, without Markov. Right?
Without Markov, and trying to adapt to a new coaching scheme and a completely new roster of players, the chemistry experiment that is known as the 2010 Montreal Canadiens had a rocky year.
With injury after injury to defensemen and forwards, it seemed like the Habs never really had a chance to gel.
Aside from Markov, the Habs had key injuries to Jaroslav Spacek, Ryan O'Byrne, Brian Gionta, Scott Gomez, and Michael Cammalleri, among others.
On the goaltending front, coach Jacques Martin decided to slowly move away from the Bob Gainey-style of handing everything to Carey Price on a silver platter, and started making him earn his starts.
Unfortunately for Price, he didn't earn many.
His play ranged from weak, to adequate, to stellar, but he never seemed to get the offensive support in front of him that Jaroslav Halak got.
Often letting in one or two goals, but having his teammates unable to score, Price struggled to amass wins and maintain his confidence.
Halak, on the other hand, quietly became better and better as the season went on, eventually seizing—albeit unofficially—the No. 1 goaltending spot from Price.
To add to all of the tumult, shortly after Christmas, Bob Gainey made the not-so-shocking announcement that he was stepping down as the Habs GM and handing the reigns over to Pierre Gauthier—who was not given an interim tag by Canadiens president Pierre Boivin.
This coup d’état-style appointment of Gauthier had the Habs fanbase in a tizzy, as many people were hoping that some new blood would be brought in to the Habs front office and that Coach Martin would lose his job in the process.
This was not to be, however, and it just added to the frustration of the Habs' faithful.
With all of the drama during the season, and aside from a post-Olympic winning streak, the Habs were never much more than a win-one-lose-one hockey team.
Despite their inconsistent play that earned them the moniker "Jekyll and Hyde," they somehow managed to qualify for the playoffs on the strength—or weakness—of an overtime loss to the Leafs in their final game of the season.
Round One - Montreal v. Washington
Finishing in the eighth and final playoff spot in the East meant that the Habs had earned themselves a dance with the President's Trophy winning Washington Capitals.
Hardly a happy reward.
Needless to say expectations were rock bottom and predictions by the pundits—this one included—had the Capitals handily beating the Habs.
Despite the predictions, there was a belief, however slight, that the Canadiens might have a chance against the Caps given Washinton's defense was known to be offensively potent but defensively porous, and their goaltending was inconsistent at best.
So, Habs nation held their collective breath, happy at the thought of being in the playoffs but nervous about playing the offensive juggernaut known as the Caps.
To everyone's surprise, the Canadiens won the first game and completely shut down Alexander Ovechkin in the process.
While the Caps won the second game, in overtime, the Canadiens actually held a 4-1 lead at one point and looked like they were headed for a 2-0 series lead.
The Caps roared back, however, and continued to roll in the next two games, taking the Habs to the brink of elimination with a 3-1 series lead.
It was at that point in time that something changed for the Canadiens.
Whether it was an attitude adjustment, players rising to the challenge, the Caps taking the wins for granted, or the Habs coaches employing different strategies, the Habs were somehow able to turn the series on its head.
In Game Five of the series—and after being pulled in the previous game—Halak came back with a vengeance and stood on his head as he was being bombarded by Ovechkin and company.
It was during that game that Jacques Martin started to make adjustments, putting Travis Moen on the wing with Gomez and Gionta, shortening his bench, and increasing ice time for players who were performing.
The result was a historic comeback by the Canadiens, winning the series in seven games and being the first No. 8 seed to ever comeback from a 3-1 series deficit versus a No. 1 seed.
Round 2 - Montreal v. Pittsburgh
Despite their victory over the Caps, the Canadiens didn't stand a chance against the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins in the second round.
Or at least that is what the experts thought.
The Pens, it was said, had a much deeper lineup than the Caps and—despite his inconsistent play down the stretch—Stanley Cup caliber goaltending in Marc-Andre Fleury.
No more would the Habs be able to be sustain 35-plus shots per game and escape with the win. No more would they be able to squeak questionable goals past the opposing goaltender.
No, this was a "real" team that they were playing and the Habs had met their match.
The series started poorly for the Habs, losing both Game One and Andrei Markov to a season ending knee injury.
When Markov went down—and after the Pens' 6-3 Game One drubbing of the Habs—the thinking was, yet again, that the Penguins would make short work of the Habs and move on to their third consecutive conference finals.
But like the first round, the Canadiens had other plans.
To a man, the Habs players lifted their game to another level in committing to Jacques Martin's hermetic defensive scheme.
Again defying the critics, the Canadiens not only gave the Pens a run for their money but won the series.
Fleury, for all of his experience, looked like a leaky sieve at times, while the Canadiens were able to competently shut down the Pens big three up-front: Evgeni Malkin, Sidney Crosby, and Jordan Staal.
Just like in Round One, the Canadiens generally limited the Pens to shots from the point and the outside, and completely collapsed in the slot, frustrating the Pens' snipers.
Malkin had sequences where he looked dominant, but overall wasn't able to get too much past the Habs' stifling defense.
Crosby was the one who became the most visibly frustrated by the Habs' system.
Having the misfortune of being matched up largely against Hal Gill, Crosby was rendered ineffective in the series and finished with one goal over the seven game series.
The Canadiens' staunch defense exposed the Pens as a team that was deep down the middle but thin on the wing. As such, the Habs just concentrated on taking away the middle of the ice and won as a result.
Halak too continued his brilliance, against the Penguins, and "the little team that could" started to believe in themselves.
Whispers of a cup final and a potential championship in the city of Montreal—for the first time in 17 years—started to take over the hungry fanbase.
Round 3 - Montreal v. Philadelphia
After two major upsets in two straight rounds, things were starting to look good for the Canadiens. I mean, if they could handle Washington and Pittsburgh, then surely they could give the Flyers a run for their money.
I remember that, while watching the Flyers/Bruins seventh game to see which team would play the Habs in the next round, I felt that the Canadiens just matched up better against the Bruins.
If one thing were clear during the season, it was that the Canadiens tended to play better against highly skilled teams who focused more on talent than brawn.
Both the Flyers and Bruins represented exactly the kind of bruising opponent that the Canadiens tended to have trouble against, but the Bruins were a team decimated by injuries and who had trouble scoring.
If the Canadiens could somehow get the Bruins as an opponent, they should make it to the finals, I thought.
So, when the Flyers came back from a 3-0 deficit in Game Seven, which capped their comeback from a 3-0 series deficit, I have to say that I was a little worried.
Not only did the Flyers represent a serious physical challenge for the Canadiens, but they had a level of depth up-front and on the back end that the Habs had not yet faced.
With a lineup including Daniel Briere, Simon Gagne, Scott Hartnell, Mike Richards, and Jeff Carter, the Flyers are a team who is four lines-deep with skill and grit on each of those lines.
In addition, the Flyers top-four defense of Chris Pronger, Matt Carle, Kimmo Timonen, and Braydon Coburn represented the best four-punch combo the Habs had faced in the playoffs.
The result? Ugliness.
While the Flyers did muscle the Habs around, they tended to stick more to hockey than aggression and came out smelling like roses.
The Habs power play—operating at a 20-plus percent rate over the first two rounds—went 1-for-21 in the series, and the Canadiens were shutout in three of the four games as the Flyers turned the table on them.
The Flyers employed a tight defensive scheme that limited the Habs to shots from the point and the outside. Try as they may—and with the exception of Game Three—the smaller Canadiens forwards struggled to get to the front of the net and were not able to provide screens, deflections, or pick up rebounds.
The result was seven goals scored over five games—five of them scored in Game Three—and a trip to the golf course.
And that is how the playoffs and their season ended. With a thud.
So Now What?
So now it's over.
The dreams of a nation of Habs fans crushed as their heroes were sent packing.
While most are still in the throes of anger and depression, I say that it is time to smile.
The Canadiens gave their fans something to cheer about for the first time in years.
Sure they won the division crown a few years ago, but they bowed out to the Flyers that year, in humiliating fashion.
This year, while the Habs were frustratingly inconsistent over the course of the season, they made the fans believe in the playoffs. And that's what really counts at the end of the day.
The Canadiens improbable run just goes to show how the regular season really doesn't matter, and as long as you make the playoffs anything can happen.
We should be proud of our team, because believing that they had a chance this year, is not something that Habs fans have felt in a very long time.
Sure, there are ton of question marks surrounding the Canadiens this summer: Should/will they sign Tomas Plekanec before he becomes a free agent on July 1st? What should they do with RFA's Halak and Price? Should they extend Markov's contract now or trade him? Can they move Gomez? What about Hamrlik? Who ends up being the captain?
The list goes on and on and there will be time to review it and speculate about what the Canadiens can, should, and will do.
For now, though, it's not the time to talk about the future.
I believe that it's time to recover from the disappointment of what could have been and to revel in what has been.
The 2010 Montreal Canadiens brought pride back to the city of Montreal.
Their improbable run showed us that maybe, just maybe, with a few key tweaks to their lineup, this team could become a contender.
So don't be down in the dumps today, Habs addicts. No. Be proud of your team. Be proud of players like Brian Gionta, Michael Cammalleri, Josh Gorges, and Jaroslav Halak.
Be proud of their two incredible playoff upsets. Be proud that they did their best in a mismatch against the Flyers.
But most of all, be proud to be a fan of the Canadiens, because we haven't felt this good about the team for a long time.
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