Sometimes, in the NHL, one team gets another's number.
Sometimes, this persists for season upon season. Often, the performance of the teams involved outside of these matches is irrelevant. Why does this happen? Sometimes, it's the interaction of two systems, or the strengths and weaknesses of two rosters. Sometimes, it's simply a measure of luck. Sometimes, being able to answer this question correctly can alter the fortunes of a franchise.
The Montreal Canadiens are currently in the midst of one of those streaks. As we've recently established, it's been a while since they were able to take a win over the Ottawa Senators. In fact, discounting a preseason victory, the Habs have emerged defeated in five consecutive games against their closest geographical rivals. The gravity of a highly frustrating playoff series aside, it's becoming a little tiresome to continually lose to the Sens. However, as has been proven constantly and brought back into focus by Andrew yesterday, how one responds to those frustrating situations continues to be the barometer for success.
Headed into the playoffs as one of the East's stronger teams, the Habs were unceremoniously ousted in five games by their lower-seeded foes. The tide of optimism that accompanied Montreal's most successful regular season campaign in recent memory washed away, and the team and its management were left to analyze what had happened. It's becoming increasingly clear that they came up with the wrong answer.
Let's take a field trip, back to November 12, 2011. On that day, the Buffalo Sabres travelled to the TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts. The Sabres were riding a four game winning streak, and were occupying a playoff spot, as they had the previous two seasons. Their goal differential in that young season was +19, second in the entire NHL to only Sidney Crosby's Pittsburgh Penguins. The Buffalo Sabres were a competitive, if unspectacular, squad.
November 12, 2011, was the night that this happened:
That single act, heinous and illegal as it may have been, exerted an impact on the Buffalo Sabres franchise that outweighs its physical impact by orders of magnitude. It took a group with a reasonable expectation of a May schedule, and set it back years.
A skilled roster, including players like Jason Pominville and Nathan Gerbe, were systematically removed. In their place, Steve Ott and John Scott joined the team. A single hockey play, outside the control of any Sabre on the ice that night, was inexplicably tied to the character, manhood, and identity of the team. The subsequent and misguided quest to change that team's identity sunk them.
The 2013-14 Montreal Canadiens are a far better team than the 2011-12 Buffalo Sabres were. Their Vezina-calibre goalie, Carey Price, is the match of the staunch Ryan Miller. The talents of Norris Trophy winner P.K. Subban are in a whole other league than any player who donned the blue and gold in Buffalo two years ago. The forward corps, featuring the likes of sniper Max Pacioretty and Selke-challenger Tomas Plekanec mixed in with excellent young talent and a few strong bottom six types, is better than Buffalo's was as well. Unfortunately, as we're learning the hard way, no amount of talent on the ice can overrule the actions that occur off of it.
When the Habs and Sens squared off last Spring, there were instances of physical play. Lars Eller's season-ending injury, suffered at the hands of Eric Gryba, was scary and upsetting. The Game 3 line brawl was pointless and embarrassing. Neither incident was as singularly polarizing as Lucic on Miller, however. Instead, it seems that the sum of those events, combined with a short series catalyzed more by Craig Anderson than the Canadiens' play, has left Marc Bergevin feeling like Darcy Regier must have.
In adopting George Parros, Douglas Murray, and a new, grinding style, the Canadiens have shown that they're more interesting in winning that line brawl than they are in winning hockey games. Milan Lucic took a moderately successful team and checked them into a steep decline toward becoming the joke of the league. The Ottawa Senators seem to have taken the Montreal Canadiens from Stanley Cup contention to likely playoff bubble status.
The mirage of the Chicago game vanishing in Newark has shown that this situation isn't going to change overnight. It's going to take a concerted effort, from Marc Bergevin's wood-panelled boardroom, to Michel Therrien's cinder block office, to the Habs locker room and onto the ice. A win over the Senators tonight isn't going to pay Ottawa back for ending a promising season, or for pushing the Canadiens administrative leaders down the wrong path.
That doesn't make tonight pointless, however. As the long as Montreal's debt to the Senators exists, the least the Habs can do is start making payments.
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