Wednesday, May 26, 2010

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.

And, 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 offseason.

So where does this storied franchise go now?

With their playoff success this year, the expectations have surely gone up for a fan base that had its closest whiff of the cup since 1993.

But can the Habs meet or even surpass those expectations?

Keep in mind, that 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 then 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 Season
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, with 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 defenseman and forwards, it seemed like the Habs never really had a chance to jell.

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 of 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-shock 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’├ętat-style appointment of Gauthier had the Habs' fan base 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.


The Playoffs
Round 1 - 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 their 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 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 during 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 shutdown 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 Caps, 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—from the first time in 17 years—started to take over the hungry fan base.


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.

Right?

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 was 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 includes 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? etc.

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 improbably 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 it hasn't felt this good to be a Habs fan in a long time.

6 comments:

That was really well done, Kamal. It's my hope and belief that if the roster stays healthier next season, the Habs will land higher than an 8th seed, and not have to face the Caps/Pens powerhouses back to back in 7 games series. Winning one more game would have made all the world of difference in the seeding this past season, and then, like you said, in the playoffs anything can happen.

"...The Flyers... came out smelling like roses."

Be careful! Many fans in the Cities of Brotherly Love would take the fact that their team smells like roses as an insult. JK :-)

Agree with Tyg, a well done postmortem analysis.

I'm still going to have to root for the Comeback Kids (Flyers) instead of the New Kids on the Block (Hawks), because I'm a comeback kid myself. A few years back I was in a bad traffic accident and technically died and then miraculously came back to life in the trauma room. So I'm all for those who dedicate every fiber of their being to stay alive, and that's what the Flyers have done in their Cinderella storybook playoff run.

So, Best of Luck for the future to yall and the Habs. And I hope to see you guys again here soon.

Luvs The Bubba

Hey Tyg, no question that one more win in the last week of the season would have made a big difference. But this was the path they were meant to go on.

Think about it...the way the Habs were playing, would they have had that chance to face major adversity against the Devils, or the Pens, in the first round?

Playing the Caps and coming back from the 3-1 deficit is what made them come together as a team, I think.

Hey Bubba and thanks for your comment!

LOL! Ya it's true that Flyers fans might be insulted by the comparison to roses! LOL!

Glad you liked the write up and that is an amazing story of yours. I can't even imagine what that must have been like but good for you for pulling through it.

While the Flyers are definite underdogs in eh finals—and I believe that the Hawks will ultimately walk away with the cup—I think that they have enough skill and depth, and are getting healthy at the right time, to give the Hawks a run for their money.

I can see this one going 6 games unless Leighton is completely torn apart by the likes of Toews, Kane, Byfuglien and co.

If that happens, then this thing might come apart fast and be over in 5.

I hear Boucher is practicing and hopes to be back, as the backup, for Game 1.

That is a good thing for the Flyers, I'd think.

If he's dressed for Game 1 as backup, then I bet you that they've over-exaggerated his injury from the get-go, as they're prone to do at this time of year.

Can't wait. Less than 21 hours to go. I don't care who's playing, I love me some hockey and I'll take what I can get!

Meanwhile, my poor beloved Orlando Magic are about to go down, so I know how it feels for you guys to see your team get so far and then--poof!

Hey Bubba,

Agreed. There is always a lot of subterfuge in the playoffs and yep, if Boucher is back as the backup, it is probably because he is not as badly injured as they said.

Whether he plays or not, I think that will be a good morale boost for Philly.

This series is going to be awesome, imo. Either the Hawks will smear the Flyers in 5 games or this will go long. Not sure which way it will go, but there are some great matchups to watch!

Orlando Magic. Wow. I went to see a game in Orlando in the late eighties, when I was a kid.

That is the only basketball game I've ever seen live and what a great experience that was!

But I hear ya, re: them getting eliminated.

So close but yet so what, eh?

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