Understanding This Incomprehensively Crafty Canadiens Team
It is impossible to comprehend in some senses, yet entirely sensible but unforeseen when looked at with some distance.
I'm talking specifically about what the Montreal Canadiens have and are accomplishing as a whole in this post season of dreams.
For fans, it's tough to get a grip on and stay grounded while your mind is not believing your eyes.
I've seen a lot of hockey in my life. Close to 40 years of games and playoffs. I've seen some great Canadiens teams win Cups in transition years, between dynasties. I've been fortunate to witness one of hockey's rare dynasties at a time when I could not comprehend not winning the Cup. I've seen a pair of Habs teams defy the odds and earn two very unexpected Stanley Cups. I've seen legends unfold, great goalies stand on their heads, and players of all types raise their games.
I've never seen anything like this...not even close.
I've seen upsets before. Some were understandable as they happened. Some took awhile to comprehend. I've seen the Habs undo some great teams, and I've seen them fall a few times to what looked to be lesser opponents.
2010 is not comparable to 1993 or 1986 or 1971. There are only similarities to be made, much of it in regards to goaltending, which by no coincidence, is always a playoff story when a team is on a roll. There is much more to a great playoff ride than that.
The funny thing is, I thought I'd seen it all, in some form or another, but this is a whole new book.
The 2010 Canadiens have now upset two supreme and elite teams in the Washington Capitals and the Pittsburgh Penguins, and in an off kilter sort of way I knew it could be done.
The Capitals are a team that has thus far only figured out one way of winning games, and they are designed to execute that ideal. There are in the process of learning how losing grows a team closer to their goal.
The Penguins are a team that has figured out those other ways of winning, but after two successive trips to the finals, a hockey club inevitably begins to burn some oil. Fatigue, after a third year of going deep into the playoffs, is unavoidable. They worn down and the Canadiens wore them down some more. That's all that happened. Great teams rebound.
Did I think that these Montreal Canadiens were the team that could pick apart the Capitals deficiencies before the series began?
Oh a little, maybe, but after a spilt in the first two, I could see more of the same coming.
Did I think that the Habs could turn a similar trick on the Penguins?
After one game - no! After two - it was a possibility. By the fourth game, you could sense the Penguins become frustrated and flustered, at not being able to put the Habs away. It was obvious after six.
Now what I thought and felt and saw and sensed matters not.
What matters is after an opening game win against the Capitals, the Canadiens believed. They believed in themselves firmly, because even with Washington up three games to one, that faith in themselves did not relent. A pair of pounding on Montreal ice in hindsight seems to have made them resilient.
Onto Pittsburgh, and a Game One trashing. Two nights later produced a Montreal win, and more confidence and resiliency with it.
Of this series, there are many images and memories fans will retain. For every logic defying Jaroslav Halak save or timely Mike Cammalleri goal, there was a Habs brave going above and beyond, exerting a superhuman effort from himself.
Between those multitude of images, there two in particular are that I cannot get away from.
It's not that they neccessarily represent moments that will be captured in the "History Will Be Made" series, but they stood out for other reasons.
The first, occurred in the first period of Game One, when Matt Cooke crashed into Andrei Markov, who went down in a painful crumble.
How many of us thought the Canadiens were meat at that moment?
Is it hard to believe in retrospect, that the Canadiens defeated the Stanley Cup champs without a contrinution from the player who many would say is the most important on the team?
I for one cannot believe the Habs dethroned the Pens without him. It's just flat out incomprehensible.
The second image I retain is that of Sidney Crosby, blank look on his face, sitting in the penalty box a dozen seconds into this Game Seven.
Crosby had just fouled Josh Gorges with what has to be the stupidest penalty ever taken, and he knew it. I didn't see him say too much about it, he who is notorious for his lip. It's my guess, from his post game comments after Game Six, that he wanted at Gorges, for what occured in that final whistle scrum, when he was jostling with Tomas Plekanec.
In that short interview question, Crosby said that he did not know or understand what Gorges had come over for. The words were pithy, and the tone more disrespectful than anything I'd ever heard Crosby use before.
If those two images have a connection, it is adversity - something that you ca never learn enough from.
In this round, the Canadiens seemed to thrive on it.
It's also what did the Penguins in.
It may also explain why one team won and the other did not.
During the series, the Canadiens were offset by the Markov injury, the slow return of Jaroslav Spacek, a pair of less than stellar Halak performances, and an injury to Gill.
Through it all, Montreal did not take their eyes off the prize. They carried onward, going from giving everything they had in the tank to giving a little more.
On the Montreal, everyone looks to each other for leadership and inspiration. They count on each other to deliver in their various roles.
On Pittsburgh, certain players are expected to deliver, and the Canadiens took that away.
Crosby, again in his post game comments, dropped another zinger in regards to the Habs, saying he'd never seen a team do what they do and win. He spelled it out even, saying the Canadiens plan is to just sit there, sit back, get outshot, and capitalize.
Tough to figure things out when you don't respect a team, isn't it?
Crosby's description might represent the appearance of what Montreal did, but it does seize the essence of it.
Montreal took away what worked for the Penguins just as they did against Washington, proving that Pittsburgh learned nothing from Montreal's win in round one.
The reason they did not learn, is because they did not respect it. They were above it and bigger than that.
Crosby looked no more clued in as to what had happened than Ovechkin did after round one.
But all that's easy for us to suss out with hindsight, and it brings it back to the point I was making at the top. If you and I have never quite seen a team win in this manner, then we have company in Sid and Alex.
The words "incomprehensible" and "unbelievable" constantly re-enter the equation, because honestly, who of us fans respected the notion that the Canadiens could pull of these types of upsets this spring?
This is, after all, the team that required it's last gasp to tie the Maple Leafs in regulation play of Game 82 to earn a desperate point to clinch a playoff spot, is it not?
Simply put, we took 'em lightly and opponents likely did so as well, but will never admit.
The Canadiens themselves, did not take all this sitting down, thankfully, and maybe this is why this spring is a surprise and this team so misunderstood.
In that light, it just might be that this is so incomprehensible because it is so unparalleled.
Consider....an eighth place team, that is much better than we all thought it was, with a red hot goalie and a couple of snipers we at least knew were capable.
We saw the positive elements of this team in spurts, but rarely all of it together at once.
Consider....a team that truly underwent the figurative extreme makeover in the off season.
Remember when we said it would take this new lineup 20 games to gel. Then 30. Then 40. Then by the Olympic break? Final answer, it took 82 games!
And now look!
We love our cool under fire Jaro, our sniper Cammalleri, the excited and excitable P.K. Subban, that little Giant Gionta, Mad Max the irritant, the silky Gomez and the crafty Plekanec, Josh Gorges and his guts, Pyatt with his sound game, Moen in everybody's faces, Markov's vision, MAB the world's smallest cannon, Metro and his right handed shot, AK46 when he's on, Hammer on his last breath, it's a bird, it's a plane, it's Hal Gill and his wingspan, Benny when he's on and hitting, Carey laughing at Jaro from the bench, Spacek and his goofy smile, Rhino when he's pasting bodies, and Moore, last to arrive on the team but the first into the corners.
Consider....this team required 41 players this season to finish the schedule.
Anyone recall the names Wyman, Weber, Trotter, Stewart, Leach, Chipchura, Carle, Belle, White, Desharnais, White, Laraque, Latendresse, Mara, D'Agostini or the equivalent of three forward lines and three defense pairings?
Consider....the Canadiens had a new coach to sort through all this, with mistakes made along the way.
Tough to establish a system perhaps, with so much unfamiliarity.
Consider....that for half the season, the Canadiens were not able to determine a clear cut number one goalie.
For the longest time, this team was so messed, the neccessity of that question being solved was meaningless.
Consider....all this mess under the microscopic pressure cooker of Montreal.
There were no rumours or scandalous pics in the papers this time around because no one could recognize the players!
Now with much of this taken into consideration, and much of it settled, can we safely say that the team we are currently cheering for is not the same club as the one that made the playoffs by the nose of a pig.
They're unrecognizable for good reason.
The passing of time, the roadbumbs, the trials, the judgement, tribulation, adversity and especially the common goal within their present grasp have united this team.
We now know who they are, but much more importantly, they have forged their identity.
That all said, we expect nothing less of this team than a 25th Stanley Cup.
And so do the players!
Pay attention to how it all happens, you'll want to tell your grandchildren one day!