It’s always a difficult task to try and segment a 7-month long season in to 3 distinct buckets, as the memories all tend to fade and fall victim to what romanticism and to what feels most comfortable. The Habs have been a veritable roller coaster for two full seasons now…and what a roller coaster it is. Dizzying heights and stomach-churning drops galore. As strange as it is, would the highs feel as good as they do if not for the abyssmal depths that this team sunk to at times? Probably not.
Let’s start from the bottom of the barrel and finish on a high, shall we?
The Pacioretty/Chara incident. This will certainly be one of the infamous moments in Habs history, for all the wrong reasons. Everyone has their own personal opinion on whether or not Chara intended to severely injure Pacioretty, but the fact will always be that Pacioretty came within fractions of an inch from losing his career, his ability to walk, or perhaps even worse. That he luckily escaped severe handicap is a blessing, but it also fuels the knuckle-draggers who think the whole thing was overblown. Pacioretty was out cold on the ice – that by definition is a severe concussion. That he seemed to avoid post-concussion symptoms is what has Dr. Recchi, Boston media, and Bruins fans in such a confused tizzy. Any way you slice it, this was a horrific incident that touched off a frenzy in Montreal unseen in decades. Predictably, the rest of the hockey world points and laughs. Thankfully Pacioretty will be back next year and looking to pick up where he left off.
Injuries to Markov and Gorges. Why, oh why can’t the Habs stay in one piece for one year? If you spend any time reading here, you know me as somebody that doesn’t buy the injuries as an excuse for underachieving, or failure. Everyone suffers from injuries, and the Habs were somewhere in the middle of the pack in terms of man-games lost to injury. Yeah, yeah, the whole quality vs quantity argument. Given the importance of Markov and Gorges to the team, it seems grossly unfair that both would be shelved for many months. Will either be back next season? Time will tell, but I would like to see them both return, for the right price of course.
Scott Gomez. No breakdown of the Habs season would be complete without looking at Gomez’ horrific season. After his putrid start, his supporters said that he’s a second half player. When he didn’t get going after the all star break, his supporters entrenched themselves deeper and said he was a playoff performer and we should be patient. When all is said and done, he never really got going at all. 38 points, -15. Underwhelming playoff performance aside from a strong first game. His last goal would come in early February, while all other facets of his game tumbled to appaling levels. The Canadiens can’t afford another season like that from a guy who eats such a large chunk of cap space. It will be tough to move him in any scenario, but its safe to say that his nightmarish season could have single-handedly cost the Habs a playoff spot if not for Carey Price’s brilliance.
Booing Carey Price. What’s the matter with the people who booed Carey Price – in the preseason no less? The real work hadn’t yet begun and those who sleep in Halak jammies were already out with their pitchforks. Needless to say, within weeks they no longer had any credibility, as Price forcibly duct taped every single one of the haters mouths shut. Booing the home team is never smart. Singling out a young player who needed support more than scorn was borderline criminal. In the end, all Price needed was confidence and he’d take care of the rest. On many nights, he was left on his own and snatched victory from the jaws of defeat. It’s what the greats do, and Carey Price is already great. When it’s all said and done, his name will not look out of place with the likes of Plante, Vezina, Roy, and Dryden.
The rivalry with Boston. For the better part of a century, the Habs and Bruins built one of the greatest rivalries in sports. In 2011, however, it went from an on-ice rivalry, to outright vitriolic hate in all directions. The players don’t like one another, but the fans and media have helped propel this rivalry to very nasty, unfriendly places. There’s no need to rehash it all, as it all cuts so close to the bone but it’s safe to say that this rivalry, which had cooled slightly in recent years, even with several playoff matchups has been renewed. We hope that it stays on the ice and produces exciting hockey, but I somehow doubt that. Winning with grace has eluded certain fanbases and the teams they follow.
Opening round loss to the Bruins. After the tumultuous season that the Habs suffered at the hands of the Bruins (despite winning 4 of 6 games), roaring out to a 2-0 series lead had everyone thinking about the 2010 playoffs and another Cinderella run. Surely, with a 0-26 record when falling behind by two games, the Bruins were toast, right? Sadly for Habs fans, the Bruins fought back, broke through the barrier that was so successful last year for Montreal and eventually won the series. In seven games. In overtime. It doesn’t get worse than that for Habs fans who were around when the Canadiens hadn’t lost to the Bruins in the playoffs for 40 years. Yes, 40 years.
Inability to score at even strength – ‘The System’. Listening to the season ending post-mortem press conference, Jacques Martin would have you believe that his puck possession system in fully in place, and that the Habs do not struggle to score goals. Those paying attention know that he is simply deflecting, avoiding and outright lying about the type of hockey he has his team playing. It was tough to argue with him as the Habs hobbled through the season and still hung on to 6th place in the East. But again, when looking at all of the stats and evidence, the real system is Carey Price. Without 70+ games of terrific hockey from the Habs netminder, it would have been lights out after the regular season. It’s dangerous to rely solely on special teams and goaltending, and hopefully everyone now realizes that.
Underachieving forwards. All 6 of the top forwards had sub-par years. Starting with the aforementioned Gomez, but filtering down to each and every one of Plekanec, Gionta, Kostitsyn, Cammalleri and whoever the 6th forward was on any given day. None had what I’d call a strong year. Aside from Gomez’ putrid performance, the others all had decent, but underwhelming performances. We’ll never know how Pacioretty would have affected things if not for his head-first dive in to a stanchion, but it’s clear – the system prevents the Habs best offensive talents from reaching their potential. We’ve long forgotten what it’s like to have a forward finish among the league leaders in terms of production, and as long as the defense-first system lives, the Habs will struggle to score – regardless of the PR spin the coach and management decides to sell us, and regardless of what talent may be lured to town.
Moving Ryan O’Byrne, then trading to acquire more defense. This is a sticky one. The coach didn’t trust O’Byrne, which is his prerogative. I have to admit that I didn’t have much faith in O’Byrne, either, but I did want him in the lineup on a more consistent basis so that he could develop the confidence that fans would then absorb by osmosis. The organization didn’t see it that way, and shipped him to Colorado – where he played quite well – for another small prospect forward in Michael Bournival. We can only ponder how management reacted once O’Byrne was no longer available once their defensemen started to drop like flies. Would O’Byrne have drawn back in to the lineup, or would coach Martin continue to select others like Alexandre Picard over him? We’ll never know, but what is certain is that there was no rush to move him as quickly as they did.
Scattered, disorganized, immobile defense. Valiant warriors one and all: Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik, Jaroslav Spacek, Brent Sopel, Paul Mara. All are guys with guts, and all performed as well as they could. In the end, it was clear that they were asked to do more than they were capable of – whether through lack of skill, or the slow erosion of age, these guys simply couldn’t do the things necessary to win for long enough. Opponents know that if they press on their older, slower bodies, they’ll end up with the puck in the Canadiens zone, and they’ll force these older players to take penalties. And take penalties they did; the Habs were near the summit of the league in terms of minor penalties taken; another blight on ‘the system’. It’s tough to score goals when the puck is always in your own end. Individually they all seem like terrific teammates, but in order to get better, some changes will need to be made, and hard decisions taken. It’s hard to do, but teams don’t get better by “being nice”.
Picking on PK. I would have put this in the “ugly” section if PK showed any signs of caring what other think of him outside of his locker room. Instead, Pernell Karl turned the corner at midseason and, given the ice time he received because of injuries to Markov and Gorges, he opened eyes across the league. However, not all eyes are as tolerant as we would like them to be in 2011. Racial slurs became common, and the league feigned horror at the “disrespect” the Habs young rearguard displayed on the ice. What a load of trash. Brad Marchand and Cam Fowler pulled similar stunts to what Subban did this year, and yet received no criticism. Racial undertones aside, PK gets a lot of flack simply because he’s GREAT and still a long way from his full potential. This scares other teams and their fans. Almost all non-Habs fans would admit to wanting him on their team, and this is a testament to PK’s resolve, evolving maturity, and lastly, to Trevor Timmins, who has hit a grand slam by drafting this kid in the second round. For once, it’s awfully nice having a player that everyone else says “how did we miss this guy” about.
The Failure of Pouliot. Benny, Benny, Benny. Last year I referred to you as Jimmy Olsen on a team of superheroes. You did nothing to change that this year, even though I thought you may be turning a corner at a few points. Have a nice career in some other jersey. I can’t devote any more space to you and your underachieving ways.
The Heritage Classic. Everyone loves an outdoor game, right? The mystique, the roots of the game, the fresh air. Yeah, sure they do. On this cold February evening, the Habs, decided that being in front of a gigantic, captive North-American audience was the right time to play one of the worst games of the season, being blanked 4-0 to the Calgary Flames at McMahon Stadium. It was a flaccid performance, coming off the heels of an equally putrid loss to the bottom-feeding Oilers.
Departures we hate to see. It hasn’t happened yet, but it certainly appears that Kirk Muller is on his way out of Montreal. What a shame that the Canadiens organization should lose two young coaching talents in Guy Boucher and Kirk Muller in consecutive years. If there’s one argument for Habs brass in keeping Jacques Martin around it’s that if they cut him loose any time soon after losing Boucher and Muller, they’ll be roasted. Other players potentially on their way out include Andrei Markov, Hal Gill, Roman Hamrlik and a few others. Some are near and dear to Habs fans, and we’d hate to see them go. In some cases, it’s necessary, but in the case of Kirk Muller you’d hope the Canadiens would do whatever it takes to keep a guy that the players reportedly adore. The fans seem to like him, too.
A new captain for a new era. After going through an entire season with no captain, the Canadiens decided it was time to name a new one to replace Saku Koivu. Raise your hand if you don’t like Brian Gionta as Captain. Nobody? I thought so. Stoic, heart of a lion, non-stop motor…what’s not to like about Brian Gionta? Nothing, that’s what.
Price’s rebirth. Carey Price had been, until this season started, a very controversial figure. How refreshing it is then, that under more pressure than ANY player in the league, Price responds with the type of season he had. There’s a case to be made that he should have been nominated for the Hart Trophy as the league’s MVP. Certainly there is no post-season in Montreal without his consistently solid play. Each and every single Habs fan should be in awe of how he played and conducted himself this year. And General Manager Gauthier should lock him up for a very, very long time as soon as possible. Don’t wait until Price increases his value even higher.
Subban’s emergence. He’s already been mentioned, but how amazing was PK Subban this season? He’s clearly the best rookie defenseman the Habs have had since the mid-80′s, and there are whispers that he’s gone and made Andrei Markov expendable. I don’t necessarily believe that, as the sophomore jinx has bitten the best of them, including Tyler Myers and Drew Doughty. Subban could easily have a setback next year, but what is clear is that at 21 years old, Subban is going to be the Canadiens top defenseman in a couple years from now, and will be for a long, long time. As with Price, Gauthier should lock up Subban immediately, before his price tag is elevated with Norris credentials.
Weber shines. Below the radar, and in Subban’s immense shadow lies the solid, versatile Yannick Weber. He may never be a top pairing defenseman, but he can be an effective power play specialist, while not embarassing himself on defense. He also proved that he could play a fourth line role, bringing back images of another Swiss-born, under-the-radar, jack-of-all-trades former Hab in Mark Streit. I believe he’s been underrated all season long and has earned a permanent spot on the blueline.
Pacioretty’s promise. Where’s our power forward? How many times had you heard that over the past decade? Safe to say that if you had a dime for every time you heard that from a fan, or member of the media, you’d be living the sweet life out in California’s beatiful San Fernando Valley (hat tip to Dr. Venkman for that beauty). Before being savagely injured, Pacioretty was just entering his own. He was the Habs best forward at the time of his injury, and seemed to be the answer to the gaping hole among the top 6 forwards. When Pacioretty revealed that he would have been ready to face the Capitals should the Habs have beaten Boston, fans sighed in disappointment. So close. On the other hand, he gets a full off-season to stregthen his neck and be absolutely certain that he wasn’t rushing back. Then again, it took a wicked slap shot to the ribs and a trip to the hospital before Pacioretty really heated up in the first place, so who knows, maybe he would have been even better after recovering from his neck problems.
Discovery of Desharnais. Talk about found money! Everyone knew about his skill, and his pal Pacioretty said he was the best center he had ever played with. It didn’t take long for Habs fans to see what he was talking about. Though he’s another small forward on a team of small forwards, I think Claude Julien got it right on when he said that Desharnais looks like he could be another Martin St-Louis. Let’s hope the Canadiens are able to find a permanent and fitting role for this pint-sized dynamo. It will be tough, as the Habs have Gomez, Plekanec and Eller at center already. Eller is ill-suited to play wing, and it would be a shame for Desharnais to toil on the fourth line with all that skill being devoted to a checking role. The answer, as hard as it may be to accomplish, is to somehow move Gomez. As much as I’d like to give him the chance to redeem himself (and this likely will be the path we go down), I’d spit nails if young talent was sacrificed for overpaid underachievers. Young homegrown talent is raring to go, and shouldn’t be stifled or discarded. If Habs management is intent on letting fresh coaching talent walk away, as well as prime prospects in low salary brackets in favour of bloated, stale contracts in Jacques Martin and Scott Gomez, then they should be immediately fired.
BAMF Ryan White. Finally, a player with wheels, and a willingness to get his nose dirty. Every team needs players like Ryan White. When members of the team come out and publicly state that White should have been on the team since the start of the season, that’s a criticism on the coaches and management, who were either asleep at the switch, or ignorant of their team’s needs. Either way, it’s a huge compliment to Ryan White, who, despite not being a heavy weight, finally brings accountability for other teams who feel like they can take liberties on the Habs without having to answer for it.
Koivu 2.0: Enter Lars Eller. Somebody said it on Twitter, and I think it’s totally appropriate (if you know who said it, please let me know). Eller is Koivu in a bigger body. What a dream come true for Habs fans! For a decade we wished that Saku could have been a little bigger and a little more durable. As big as his heart was and still is, he always wore down as the seasons took their inevitable toll. Lars Eller may not have had the numbers to prove it, but he has playmaking skills, skating ability, defensive awareness and size down the middle – one of the Habs missing key ingredients. We would love to see him develop his finish around the net in coming years, but it’s clear to me that the Habs have won the Halak trade hands-down. With Eller in the fold, and a reborn Carey Price, it’s in fact a steal and Gauthier deserves credit, despite what Pierre McGuire’s bitterness will tell you.
Mike Cammalleri - playoff wizard. Two seasons. 26 playoff games. 16 goals. 13 assists. 29 points. Any questions? Many thought that they could throw Cammalleri under the same bus that Gomez found himself under all season. While Gomez apologists tried to tell us that he would produce in the playoffs, and that Cammalleri hadn’t proven anything, we now know better. Cammalleri is a gamer, and brings his best to the post season. While he’s merely average defensively, he’s the Habs go-to guy on offense in the playoffs. He simply gets it done unlike any Hab player in recent years in the post season.
Small package, huge heart. The small forwards may get beaten up, but they simply don’t go away. Time and time again they fought back this season, led by guys who punch much higher than their weight. Captain Gionta certainly leads the way with his fearlessness, and never say die work ethic, but others like Plekanec, Cammalleri and Desharnais showed no fear when it comes to facing adversity. Young players like Eller, Desharnais, Subban, Weber, Pacioretty are soaking in some extremely vital lessons. They see smaller guys working their tails off, and the attitude is infectious. This bodes very well for chemistry and identity of the Habs’ future.
Departures we like to see. Pierre Boivin. Thanks for making the Habs more relevant than they’ve ever been, during their longest Stanley Cup drought in history. Your business acumen and marketing prowess (along with Ray Lalonde) is to be commended. You guys made the Habs a glossy, flashy, only-show-in-town behemoth. Your work has enlivened the Habs for a new generation and has somehow made the Canadiens even more of a religion than they already were. However, your sociological policies have held the Canadiens back where it counts most – on the ice. You honoured the past glory of the franchise to the point of distracting fans to the mediocrity of recent teams. We’re all grateful for what you did in honouring greats like Geoffrion, Robinson, Cournoyer, Savard, Gainey, Roy and others, and we thank you for that. Really, we do. The ceremonies were touching, classy and the gold standard by which all sports teams should aspire to. Good luck in your future endeavors, but I can’t say that I’m sad to see you go.
Mathieu Darche. What more can be said about this guy? Bemoaned by nearly all Habs fans for signing a one-way deal, I was in the minority who thought this was a wise, value-packed signing, and I’m glad that I was proven right. He filled in admirably on the second line when Pacioretty went down, scoring several big goals in areas on the ice where Habs have feared to tread for years. He has to be a tremendous influence on young players who have more skill and upside than Darche, but may lack the work ethic required at the NHL level. Darche spent time all over the lineup, and even spent time in the press box. Without having access to the locker room, I’d bet my last penny that he did everything with a smile on his face.
Triple low-fives. How much fun is the post-victory ritual between Subban and Price?
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