The Montreal Canadiens are in the second round of the 2014-2015 playoffs, and about to play Game 3 heading into Tampa Bay having lost both of the first two games of the series, in Montreal no less.
Cue the apocalypse, am I right?
Not for me. I’m not closing the door on the Habs’ season, and more importantly, neither are they. They've faced adversity before now; a lot of it hasn't even been on the ice.
There are a lot of narratives that have surrounded this team this season. From the start of it, since perhaps the night that Tampa won their first game of the regular season against the Habs in humiliating fashion (so the fourth game of the season, after winning three but two of those in a shootout), some Habs’ fans have wanted the coach fired. This man will never take the team to the next level. He’s stubborn. He ruins players. Any win streak is unsustainable and a fallacy. Just watch, the epic collapse is coming.
But it didn't. Carey Price was pretty good, though. So the new narrative was born, this team doesn’t win if not for the best goalie in the league. He is the best goalie in the league, that is true. He’s the best goalie on the planet. And this team has been condemned for that fact, over and over again, through the media on TV, radio and print, and especially social media. Social media has kind of been a terrible place for Habs fans this season.
I believe the constant fall-back on Carey Price being the only reason the Habs had a successful season might in a way be intended as praise for the goalie, but mostly it’s just an indictment on the coach and "his" system, which is evidently not a system at all and merely an over-reliance on the goalie. Anybody could coach this team with Carey Price in net, etc.
The "this team is a lottery team if not for Carey Price" mantra has been repeated everywhere for months. It always makes me wince, because I think of any of the players on the team who hear it, and it’s not fair. It’s definitely not very nice. And you know what? It’s not true.
Forgetting for a moment that every single hockey team in the league would jump at the chance to have Carey Price on their team, the "lottery team" label is something that actually should get straight-up forgotten. Remember the end of the regular season, when the goalie was not at his absolute usual best and the team went on another three game losing streak? We had all been told the nosedive would come sooner or later, turned out to be way late, but it finally came, right?
Well, a funny thing happened in the last stretch to the playoffs.
It was a Sunday. April 5. The Habs had just lost three games in a row to Tampa (ouch), Washington (damn) and New Jersey (ugh). They showed up to play in Florida, and it happened to be the fourth opportunity in a row for Carey Price to tie the record for most wins-per-season in Canadiens history, his team having squandered the last three. Less than six minutes into the game, Max Pacioretty went hard into the boards and left the ice looking dazed and disoriented, albeit upright. It was sickening to watch and reminiscent of the time Zdeno Chara broke Max Pacioretty's neck, as far as that heart-sinking moment fans feel, and devastating for any of his family and loved ones. And so close to the playoffs - just last year we witnessed an injury to Carey Price in the playoffs and you could literally feel any hope for the team going out in a puff of smoke. It felt like that. Whatever just happened to Pacioretty, Price or no Price, we were sunk. We were all sunk.
And then, Tomas Plekanec scored a seemingly instant goal on the ensuing powerplay. Florida tied the game in the second period, but the Canadiens all played hard and gave us three highlight-reel unanswered goals; the ridiculously beautiful play by P.K. Subban that Brendan Gallagher finished on, the coast-to-coast goal by P.A. Parenteau where he buried his own rebound, and the capper, a goal by recent trade Devante Smith-Pelly that made that whole bench rejoice for him.
Montreal won. They did it with a powerplay goal. They did it without Pacioretty. They entertained. And Carey Price tied the franchise record.
The team that can't score, and who could have given up and been content to hang back with their playoff spot long-since assured, then went on to complete a season-sweep against the Detroit Red Wings in overtime thanks to a beauty delivered by Lars Eller. That night, Carey Price broke the franchise record he had just tied four nights earlier. And two nights later, he broke it again in Toronto on the final night of the regular season. That game, the Habs won in a shootout on enemy ice.
All told, those final three games encapsulated what this team has. Character. And in that room, they're brothers. They care about each other and play for each other, and yes, their coach. They scored 12 goals in three games after losing Pacioretty. And without relying on their goalie to bail them out.
In the first round of the playoffs, they took an extra two games to finish off Ottawa. Montreal is a city whose fanbase seems to both not tolerate anything less than a sweep in the playoffs all the while pointing out that the team is a fallacy but for their goalie. That series had moments that we as fans live for. The way the team banded together after having their Norris nominee defenceman ejected from Game 1 and won convincingly, still without Pacioretty. Subban's goal and goal celebration in Game 2. The game-tying goal in waning moments of Game 3 by Dale Weise. The winner, by Dale Weise. In that series, Carey Price only had to save the team in Game 6. Game 5 had been a stinker, and Price was not having a repeat. Those final heart stopping minutes of Game 6? Worth the price of admission.
The Habs lost Game 1 to Tampa on Friday night, but they didn't deserve to. They played a hell of a game even to the naked eye. Apparently they were stats darlings as well. The winning goal for Tampa Bay was offside. Game 2 was another fantastic start for the Canadiens but it unravelled thanks to a couple of dumb penalties.
As I see it, good. They played a clunker. It was Game 2. So, they got the clunker out of the way early. This is not a team that has any intention of going down, and this is not a team that expected to play just 16 playoff games in regulation time before getting a chance to touch the Stanley Cup, even if the fans did. They've come too far. And Carey Price? He won't allow a night like Sunday's again.
You wonder what this team thinks about us. They won 50 games this season. And finished in second place in the entire NHL with 110 points. And with the exception of Price they've been put down all season by fans and media. After Sunday though, with six pucks in the back of Price's net, the season-long narrative regarding Price has quickly switched to "This is a team that cannot score goals."
Take a look around at some of these playoff games. They're being won by goaltenders. In the irony of all ironies, it may just be a return to the team's regular season style of play that will win them their games in the playoffs.
Sunday's game was an aberration that the team itself won't be dwelling on. They can't score on the powerplay? Maybe. And maybe Tampa doesn't take any more penalties. Every game, as Max Pacioretty has repeated this season, tells its own story. Every series tells its own story.
I'm not writing these guys off. I have always believed in my team; this year, there's a little something more. There's something truly special. There's an added mystique with the voice of Jean Beliveau reminding them that the only way to win is as a team, and the number 4 emblazoned on their chests. If you give it a chance and look at the big picture, you might just end up having fun watching things unfold, feeling all those delicious hockey emotions and experiencing that hockey magic.
I'm calling the Habs in 7 or less. Go Habs Go.