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theactivestick | May 2, 2013

Has the Stanley Cup window reopened for Montreal?

In 2008, the Montreal Canadiens unexpectedly finished the season atop the Eastern Conference standings. They were first tested in the postseason by the eighth-place Boston Bruins, a team they had swept in the regular season, before being defeated in five games by the Philadelphia Flyers, another team they had swept in the regular season.

The fans were disappointed, for sure, but far from devastated. Instead, we were excited about the future.

Habs Inside/Out's Chris Aung-Thwin, in a season post-mortem, said what we were all thinking.

"Les Glorieux are back," he wrote.

At the time, it did feel that way in this city. The Habs may have lost to a team that, for that series, had the edge in goaltending, Montreal told itself, but they finished the season at the top of the conference. For the first time in a decade and a half, there was hope that there could be hockey legends in this town again.

Les Glorieux were back.

Les Glorieux were back.

We all know what came next. The Canadiens started the following season well enough. But then came the 2009 NHL All Star Game, for the purposes of which we had collectively decided that Mike Komisarek could totally be one of les Glorieux. Perhaps as a punishment for our sins, that game kicked off a disastrous spiral during which the Canadiens fired the coach in the midst of a second-half collapse, backed into the playoffs on a loser point, got swept by the top-ranked Boston Bruins, and blew the roster up in the offseason.

So much for legends.

Five years later, the Canadiens are heading into the playoffs having once again dramatically surpassed preseason expectations. While it wasn't entirely unexpected that they'd be better this year - it's not like they could have fallen any further than last in the conference, and all signs pointed to the Habs becoming at least a bubble team-anyone who expected a season this good, didn't, and is now lying.

But we're not singing the same tunes as we were in 2008. Our imaginations aren't running wild, our expectations are far more tempered, and nobody is insulting the ghosts of the Forum this time around. We're just happy to be back at the party again. No insane predictions. Ça ne sent pas encore la Coupe. Which is strange, because this team is better than any of the ones that caused us to have such high hopes in the recent past.

Or maybe that's the exact reason why.

Facts and feelings

It has been exactly twenty years since the Montreal Canadiens last won the Stanley Cup, and in that time, what it feels like to be a Habs fan has completely changed. We used to get made fun of for living in the past too much, although who could blame us, really, considering what the present was? We were also criticized for our sense of entitlement, or at least what was perceived as our sense of entitlement but was more like a stubborn refusal to acknowledge reality.

In the last few years, however, our collective attitude seems to have shifted enough to the point that we're still proud of our team's history, but realize that it's firmly in the past and is staying there.

"I made a concerted effort a few seasons ago to just pretend that the Habs have zero Stanley Cups," says actor, filmmaker, NDGer , and Canadiens fan Jay Baruchel. "1993 is a lifetime ago."

Which isn't to say he wants to completely forget the past-just that a little healthy separation is in order. The banners are still hanging in the rafters at the Bell Centre, after all, and we all feel the same way whenever we look at them.

"The connection this team has to this city-It's impossible to separate it from its history," he says. "But that doesn't mean all that much when you're barely squeezing into 8th all the time."

He describes the multiple-personality-disorder aspect of Habs fandom over the last decade perfectly: "It's this weird existence where you're psyched to be the winningest team in NHL history, and one of the winningest teams in professional sports, but then you're psyched to barely make the playoffs as the 8th seed."

We're getting better at that healthy separation thing. I can't say for certain, but I think that the year-and-a-half-long centennial celebration wagon-fun as it was-finally packing up and rolling out of town might have been the catalyst. Marketing, no matter how brilliant, only masks so much disappointment, and at some point pride in the past needs to be separated from expectations in the present.

Drifting off of the usual route

It used to be that the championships were just expected in Montreal, so frequent, that the city's mayor would famously just announce that the Stanley Cup parade would "follow the usual route."

"If the Canadiens didn't win the cup, it was a failed season," says Paul Branchaud, a sometimes-blogger who has been a Canadiens fan "since spring meant a Stanley Cup was on the way."

"There wasn't a sense of entitlement, there was just an expectation."

"There wasn't a sense of entitlement, there was just an expectation," Branchaud says. "Entitlement is thinking you should win games even if you don't deserve it, but those teams were built for it."

Entitlement is thinking you should win games you don't deserve to. That sounds a little familiar, actually.

His earliest vivid memories of the team were from the last dynasty, but even after that was over, he kept following the Canadiens as one by one, the future Hall of Famers retired, as the talent in the league became more diluted with its expansion, and as other cities saw dynasties of their own.

When the Canadiens won their 1986 Cup, it was the first time in the post-war era that the Canadiens had gone seven years without one. The fans decided that seven years was going to be the longest possible Cup drought for the Habs from then on. Branchaud says that that thought kept him going for quite a while.

"No matter what, I just kept telling myself, this team doesn't go seven years without a Stanley Cup."

That kind of thinking didn't end after the Canadiens finally went seven years without winning another. How many of us kept telling ourselves that the Habs had won least one Cup every decade? No matter how disappointing the on-ice product kept proving to be, we seemed to think that the hockey gods would somehow make it happen for us.

"It's like we kept having that sense of entitlement, but we kept stretching the calendar," Branchaud says.

We knew that next Cup was coming. It had to be.

It never did.

Dans la merde

What we got instead was a decade in the merde, followed by a decade that wasn't as bad, but still fairly mediocre.

I have only been a Canadiens fan since the 2001-02 season, which, as far as the so-called "bleak era" goes, was a high point. Saku Koivu's return from cancer. The year of Jose Theodore and his Hart and his Vezina. It wasn't a bad time to "meet" the team.

But at the time, I didn't know that in 1995, the last of the Canadiens legends would leave Montreal in disgrace and immediately win a cup with another team.

Or that in 1998, the Canadiens won a playoff round for what would become the only time in eight years.

Or that in 1999, the Canadiens would miss the playoffs, ending the season with a miserable record, topped with rumours that the franchise would be relocated.

That they would miss the playoffs again in 2000, and then again in 2001.

Three years in a row. In Montreal. Which in other cities is a playoff drought, but in Montreal is a disaster.

Baruchel points out that during the "bleak era" in Montreal, the Canadiens still made the playoffs more often than they didn't, and that for some fanbases, the "lean years" would still look pretty good. He even held season tickets for two years during that time.

Still, mediocrity over the years doesn't mean that Habs fans, or any fan base for that matter, should be satisfied with their team simply aiming to make the playoffs as often as possible.

"Don't sacrifice history so much that 8th is enough," he says. "We should never tolerate anything less than the best."

Seasons that were lies

A lot of the time when it comes to sports, luck and hope get confused with one another.

To me, 2008 was just a season during which everything inexplicably went right at the right times, and the Canadiens' good fortune from the regular season was exposed by the Flyers in the playoffs. They took the luck away from the Habs, and won in five games. It looked pretty easy, too, in hindsight.

And then in 2010, Habs were lucky again, and coached well, so they overachieved, beating the top seeds in a post-season they almost had no business being in.

Baruchel sees 2010 differently.

"People point to 2010 and say the Habs were overachieving," he says. "I don't think the Habs overachieved. I think they bested Ovie and Sid and their teams, one after the other, and then ran out of steam.

"If you go back and watch those games, yes, Halak was a big part of it, but saying that is to do a disservice to the others, such as Cammalleri, who scored 13 goals and had 19 points, or Hal Gill, who blocked everything, and I could go on."

The regular season that followed doesn't matter, because that would go on to become the year the Bruins won the Stanley Cup. Whatever highs or lows the Habs faced that season were forgotten (no really, I can't remember any of them-can you?) as soon as Zdeno Chara lifted the trophy.

Once that happened, the Canadiens were left with the second-longest Stanley Cup drought of the Original Six teams, Branchaud points out, which is something I had never even thought about that will now drive me insane.

Although we did keep saying that the Habs took the Cup winners to seven games, that the losses were close or in overtime or had to do with unlucky bounces, and we consoled ourselves with that thought.

The hockey gods thought that was cute.

The biggest lie of all

Last season might have been the biggest lie of all.

Both Andrew Berkshire and Stephan Cooper did extensive work analyzing the team last spring, as the Canadiens fell apart, and then fell apart again, and then fell apart some more.

Andrew put together a great breakdown of where the team stood as we waited for a change in management. He broke down the roster, factored in what would happen if the team could have halfway decent coaching, and came to the conclusion that no matter who replaced Pierre Gauthier as General Manager, they would be in a great position because there was nowhere to go but up. By a lot.

Stephan took a look at goal differential in the conference, then removed the luck element (such as shootouts) and balanced out the one-goal losses the Habs had, and basically came to the conclusion that the Habs should have ended last season right in the bubble.

It turns out it wasn't really a basement team-not all that close to it, either. The Canadiens got a lottery draft pick out of a team that wasn't even that bad.

Despite how much time and effort we spend analyzing the intricacies of it, hockey is a simple game that boils down to whether your team puts more pucks in the opponent's net than the other team puts into yours. The best way to ensure that you do this is, as long as you're not the Randy Carlyle Era Maple Leafs, is to outshoot your opponent.

Andrew put the following data together to demonstrate the Canadiens' per-game shot differential every season over the last 15 seasons. During the ‘lean years,' the team was outshot for an incredible ten straight seasons.

While the trend went upwards for a while, they finally began really digging their way out in 2010-11, with the emergence of players like P.K. Subban and Max Pacioretty. They collapsed again under the weight of injury woes and the inexplicably incompetent coaching by Randy Cunneyworth the following year.

Odd but fun fact: the worst Canadiens team of the last 15 seasons and the best Canadiens team of the last 15 seasons were both coached by... Michel Therrien. Under Therrien, this season has produced the best shot differential the team has seen since they last were a contender.

Can this team hang?

Entitlement is thinking you should win games you don't deserve to.

The Habs' late-season slump is skewing our perspective a little bit. It's making us forget that for three quarters of the season, the Canadiens were a dominant team, a team that won games it deserved to win and lost games it deserved to win. In an 82-game season, a 10-game slump after about 40 or so games would be a footnote. They would find time to recover, we would all move on. And their luck was bound to even out at some point.

The timing is causing us to forget that all season long, we've been watching this team play incredible puck possession hockey. We've watched this team quietly dominate their opponents game in and game out. We've watched this team essentially leave the rink during the second period and still win most of their games.

"This is a great time to be playing like shit."

Hell, maybe, as Baruchel says, "this is a great time to be playing like shit. This could be the best time of year to be in a slump - it's going to be so immediate, the wounds will be a vivid in-our-face reminder of how bad things can get, going into a time where the Habs are going to have to play the best they can possibly play."

While the slump has me worried, the games I like to keep in mind are the ones against Boston and Pittsburgh, the two objectively elite teams in the East. The biggest question, once it became clear that the Habs were better than most teams in the conference (not that that's a high bar) was "can this team hang with the best?"

It did hang with the best. The way they played in two of the three games against Pittsburgh and all four of their games against Boston proved it.

Midway through the season, Andrew put together an analysis of the team's puck possession stats, as he had done after the first ten games. Towards the end of February, Stanley Cup of Chowder's criminally underrated fancy stats writer, TomServo42, did a great piece on the Northeast division to determine which teams were overachieving and which ones really were as good as their records indicated. Both came to the conclusion that the Canadiens were, in fact the real deal.

"This team can hang," became a refrain for me this year whenever I talked about the Habs, and there's no real reason this team won't hang in the playoffs. Things have to (continue to) go disastrously wrong for a first-round exit against an inferior team, which is the absolute worst-case scenario.

Even if that happens, though, the next few years look pretty good from here. The Habs have a decent core in place, and those core players are young enough to either just be entering their prime or just have entered their prime. Marc Bergevin's moves since he has been hired indicate that he's going to be smart about the salary cap.

So, for the very first time since I became a Montreal Canadiens fan, if you were to tell me that this team could maybe beat any team in a seven game series, and that they could maybe do it four times, and that they could maybe do this all and win the Stanley Cup sometime in the next few years, I would have reason to believe you. Not to imagine I believe you, but to really believe you.

They'll be hanging for a few years yet.

So, is this the year?

It's tempting to see the Habs making the playoffs at all as a bonus, given how low the expectations were to begin with and how badly the previous season ended.

In fact, this is a thought that people have expressed to me every time I have questioned a player, or something like the penalty kill, out loud.

The truth is, however, after about the third or fourth week of the season, it was clear the playoffs weren't just a bonus anymore. The team was playing that way because they are a good team, and saying "the playoffs are just a bonus" is simply not fair to them. It's like saying barely squeaking into the eighth playoff spot is enough, and this team is not an eighth-place team.

I think our tempered expectations, especially as compared to 2008, have a lot to do with the fact that we have a team that's actually good. We don't have to tie our expectations to something that doesn't actually exist this time.

Is this their year? Probably not. While it's true that anything can happen, that "anything" is far more likely to happen to the Kings, the Penguins, the Blackhawks or the Bruins. Teams that the realist in all of us knows are better teams.

Still, the Canadiens have the makings of a team that's going to be fun to watch in the next few weeks, although they won't evoke any memories of the past.

Les Glorieux never did come back to Montreal, and they likely never will.

But that's okay. We have these guys now, and these guys can hang.

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About the Author

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My name is Laura and I have a hockey problem.

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