It's high time I get around to assessing my Habs. I've been shooting my mouth off about everything else and since I make no bones about this being a Hab biased site, it's time to lay down the cards.
This weekend I hope to get down to predictions on dozens of subjects regarding the upcoming season.
Hopefully the new comp I've inherited won't set me back too many days here.
Where to begin?
I'll start by going backwards to last season and a quick (LOL, OK nevermind) overview of what happened in 2005-06.
What happened was lots Twilight Zone - like twists. The Canadiens started the post lockout season with renewed hope. The promised more open style of hockey seemed well suited to the Habs assets. There was a coach we had confidence in, and a GM rightfully steering the ship. In goal we had our only superstar, a former Hart and Vezina Trophy winner with a penchant for tabloid like mishappenings. Added to the mix, was the FA signing of the slippery and elusive Alexei Kovalev. All combined, there hadn't been this level of pre-season excitement in years.
Out of the gate, the Habs did not disappoint. Nearing the quarter schedule mark, their record was 13-5-2 - good enough to have them leapfrogging the Ottawa Senators for first place in the conference on a daily basis. People were beginning to take notice of the quickly improved squad when the bricks hit the fan.
One after another, three prime componants suffered injuries that shook the team. Captain Saku Koivu was out for 10 games and returned still injured to the lineup. Kovalev had knee surgery to repair a buildup of scar tissue from a previous ailment and missed 13 games. Just as both were set to return, defenseman Andrei Markov went down, missing 15 games. Radek Bonk, aquired prior to the lockout, played hurt for the first half of the season, and was a shadow of a shadow of his forner self. On most nights, that would be putting it nicely.
Through a 20 game span, the Habs clung tight to a .500 record. The team began losing close games and confidence in themselves The Markov injury seemed to be the last straw. They were playing terribly and coach Claude Julien resorted to drastic measures, sitting second line center Mike Ribeiro and starting backup goalie Cristobal Huet, who had been winning, more often than 5M man Theodore. The season it seemed. was going to Hell.
I was in Scarborough, Ontario for my daughters hockey tournament early in the new year. While watching her game, I noticed everyone around me stuck stuck on a small screen hung up by the ceiling. Approaching it, I saw GM Bob Gainey flanked by former Habs captain and associate coach Guy Carbonneau. I was stunned slightly, bemused, upset, and happy all at once. Relieved, was the common emotion I gathered from fellow Hab supporters that day.
As Gainey assumed coaching duties with Carbo at his side, there was an initial jump in the Canadiens step. Trouble was, things had long gone all crooked with the team. Soon they fell back into the same detrimental patterns experienced by Julien. Oddly enough, Gainey sought refuge in many of the same solutions. He began playing Huet more often and had rotating pressbox seats for Ribeiro, Jan Bulis, and Richard Zednik.
During the Olympic break, Theodore slipped on his doorstep, fracturing his ankle. Gainey must have looked shyward and wondered aloud, "What next?"
A week prior to the trade deadline, Gainey shipped the distraction Theodore had become, injury and all, to Colorado for goalie David Aebischer. The backup would play a key part in the Canadiens late season resurgance.
In the final 20 games, the Habs became the team they were at the seasons start, and began surprising opponants again. They scored key wins over Ottawa twice. Next up was back to back meetings with the Maple Leafs. The Habs shallacked them like a outhouse toilet seat. With the playoffs two weeks away, the team was in 6th, 7th, or 8th place with games in hand juggling the bottom rung of playoff hopes.
With two games remaining they clinched 7th place, backdoor style, due to an Atlanta loss. They would meet the powerful Carolina Huricanes in the opening round of the playoffs.
Initially it seemed like an instant death for the red, white and blue. The Canes had trounced, manhandled and outclassed Montreal in all four meetings. Inside the dressing room, Gainey preached a different outcome. Three of the lopsided losses came without the aforementioned trio of Koivu, Kovalev, and Markov in the lineup. As an added bonus, they had yet to face the red hot Huet. They readied themselves in the confidence they would not be outclassed.
One minute into the the Habs - Canes series, the score read 1-0 Carolina. In testament to the Habs new found backbone was the fact they retalliated with six unanswered goals to stun the Southeast Division champions 6-1. Game two began playing the same movie, but bad Hab penalties caused them to need two extra periods to pull out a 6-5 win.
Returning to Montreal for games 3 and 4, the Canadiens were reeling. Surprised and buyoed to be up 2 games, they endeavored with hard fought dedication to close out the series. The Canes countered by replacing starting goalie Martin Gerber with rookie Cam Ward. It proved to be a crucial turning point.
With the Canadiens leading 1-0 midway through game three, fate struck and derailed the Habs hopes. Koivu, on the lip of the crease was hooked under the face guard by Jason Williams. The eye injury suffered by the Habs captain would leave his career in doubt at that moment. For his part, Williams went unpenalized. Mysteriously, four on ice official missed the infraction, even though Koivu had the puck at the net prior to the deed, and left a blood streak from the faceoff circle the the infirmary!
With the perpetrator of the slash, Jason Williams, unpunished, the Hurricanes rallied for a 2-1 OT win. The remainder of the series went the Canes way, with wins by scores of 3-2, 2-1, and a sixth game 2-1 OT win to seal the Habs fate.
Considering the unlikely turn of events, the Habs could hold their heads high. They had backed the eventual Cup winners into a corner no other opponant would achive. On their way to the Stanley Cup, Canes GM Jim Rutherford admitted the Habs were the most worthy opponant.
The team that appeared shaky in mid season, allowed the Canes a mere 15 goals in their matchup. New Jersey, Buffalo and Edmonton did not fare as well against the Hurricanes defensively.
With their season over, many positives remained.
Starting in goal, the unflappable Huet picked up where Theodore left off three seasons ago. His quiet and confident manner, the composure exuded under pressure, are aspects the team will build upon.
The youngsters brought up their games. On defense, Markov looked like a general. His fluid style adapted to the new league play without speedbumps. Blueline bruiser, Mike Komisarek, showed why he was a first round pick in the last 30 games, by starting to live up to potential. After an inconsistant start (his mother succumed to cancer), he found a steadier game and became flawless.
Up front, rookie contributions, make the future look bright. Chris Higgins (23 goals) was promoted to the top line, tallied 16 goals in his final 26 games with Koivu as his pivot. On draft day three years prior, TSN tagged him as being at best a 20 goal scorer. Michael Ryder improved on what should have been a Calder year for him in 2004, notching 29 goals to lead the team. Rookies Tomas Plekanec and Alexander Perezhogin were at times offensive sparkplugs, stepping up adequately during injuries. Plekanec has the tendancies of a young Carboneau when employed on the penalty kill. He has been groomed that way for 3 seasons in the minors.
Down the stretch, Bonk turned out to be a half decent checking center. Local boys Steve Begin and Francis Bouillon, both hard hitters, were sparkplugs for the team. Gainey brought in toughness by aquiring Aaron Downey and Garth Murray, who both did good fourth line duty. Andrei Kostitsyn enjoyed a call up from Hamilton and teased Habs fans with a glimpse into the future. Kovalev became a crowd favority for his dazzle and dangle abilities with the puck. Sheldon Souray had trouble adapting to the games new fluidity but found his old form in the second half.
All things considered, the Habs were making progress. Not many changes were envisioned by Gainey for the following season.