For 82 games, or for most of them, people who pay any attention to hockey analytics criticized the Montreal Canadiens. We criticized because the coach kept making decisions that were baffling at best. We critiqued because even though the Habs were winning, they were playing poorly. We pointed out that they were out-possessed and out-chanced and out-attempted for most of the year. We did it so much, that it came off looking like complaining instead of criticism.
We complained because the Habs lost too many games they could have won. We complained when Lars Eller was benched, when his ice time was reduced, when his linemates kept changing. We complained when Douglas Murray was in the lineup. We complained when P.K. Subban was benched and that he wasn't used on the penalty kill and because his ice time was dramatically lower than we thought it should be. We complained because almost every player is worse this year than he was last year and the team is worse this year than they were last year. We complained so much that people started complaining about us and then we complained about the people complaining about us and Canadiens fandom became one giant snippy mess.
The regular season is too long when your team isn't playing very well. Loving your team and saying that they aren't playing very well isn't mutually exclusive, by the way. I will never understand people who accuse us of not being real fans when we eat, sleep, and breathe hockey so much that it ruins our day when the Habs lose. While it's true that expectations in Montreal are often artificially high, this year there was more reason than usual to have hope, so the Canadiens' inability to meet our expectations, despite their potential to meet our expectations, was depressing. It turned our expectations upside down and before the puck dropped on this year's postseason, we didn't know what to expect, or what to hope for. A quick exit, followed by some changes? A deep run, coaching issues be damned? A second round series against Boston, just so we could have yet another one for the ages? A sweep by Tampa, a steal by Price, a seven gamer with a heartbreak ending? The possibilities were, and still are endless, except that the Tampa sweep has been ruled out.
Predictions mean nothing, but most people predicted a long series with close games. Some gave the edge to Tampa, others to Montreal. Sometimes I think "long series with close games" is basically code for "I give up, I don't know." Andrew's amazing season preview yesterday detailed both teams' possession and clearly showed that the Lightning had the edge on that front. And then they played a game. This is why I love the playoffs.
As much as I laugh at people who say "make the playoffs and anything can happen," and as much as I hate when people throw out tired clichés like "the playoffs are a different animal," a version of that happened last night. I didn't recognize the team on the ice. They crushed the opposition on the very thing we expected them to fail at. Earlier today Andrew said to me "the team from last year showed up." Since it became clear a few weeks ago that the Habs were going to have to face the Lightning in the first round, I've been trying to tell myself not to get excited. Tampa has better coaching, I kept telling myself. Montreal is so inconsistent, I kept telling myself. Look at their possession numbers, I kept telling myself. Montreal's poor defensive coverage is going to be a problem, I kept telling myself. I just hope they can make it a hard-fought series, go to seven games maybe, I kept telling myself. Don't have too much hope, I kept telling myself.
To hell with all of that. It's the playoffs.
We all get four games if our team made the playoffs, more games if we're lucky. Good teams get upset, bad teams get to the conference final. It happens. There are so few games that even though regular season underlying numbers are a very good indicator of how your team can do, luck often gets the last word. So I'm putting the regular season away. I know it's a long shot. I know the Habs made the playoffs as one of only three negative possession teams. I know Carey Price is going to have to steal games. I know that Tampa could follow up last night's loss with four wins and the Habs could go home before the end of April.
I know that if they come out of this series, Boston or Detroit awaits, and then there are two more series. I know the Habs do not have a chance at the Stanley Cup. But it's the playoffs. Every minute counts. Every goal counts. Every play is the highest high or the lowest low, and there's nothing in between. It's the best time of the year, and whether we're crying with joy or sadness at the end of it, let's all appreciate that we get to cry at all. Go Habs.