Habs Face Caps: What's We've Learned - What we Should Expect
It has been a rollercoaster season for the Montreal Canadiens.
Over six months ago, the Habs began their season on the road in Toronto. After only two periods, the Canadiens' worst nightmare was realized. Andrei Markov, arguably the team's best overall player and leader, succumbed to a nasty skate cut to his ankle, and was diagnosed to miss a large portion of the season, possibly even the Olympics.
If that wasn't enough, the injuries kept coming. The next night in Buffalo, the Canadiens lost defenseman Ryan O'Byrne, who had began the season with his best training camp and was really proving to be a suitable replacement for turncoat Mike Komisarek. Over the next few weeks, the Canadiens lost Glen Metropolit, Hal Gill, Brian Gionta, and many others for considerable periods of time.
Add all this to the learning curve that automatically came with a roster with 11+ new players, and a brand new coaching staff, and things weren't exactly looking good for the Canadiens.
Still, thanks to certain players really stepping up in the absence of major pieces to the puzzle, the Habs were able to keep things afloat. Tomas Plekanec, with the help of Mike Cammalleri, was able to take the reigns and have his best career season. Roman Hamrlik and Jaroslav Spacek performed admirably, even heroically, in the absence of Andrei Markov. Even Scott Gomez rebounded from a tough start to really come through as a leader and playmaker on the team.
And of course, Jaroslav Halak defied all the odds to emerge as one of the breakout players of the year in the entire league.
As the season went on, and the Olympics came and went, the Canadiens got healthier. Andrei Markov returned and didn't miss a beat. Hal Gill settled into his role as defensive defenseman and PK specialist. Brian Gionta owned the opposition's net and became the Canadiens' leading goalscorer.
The end result: the Canadiens made the playoffs. They squeaked in, but they made it. And after a boatload of injuries, an emotional Centennial Celebration, the firing of Georges Laraque, the trading of Guillaume Latendresse, and maybe the biggest news of the year, the resignation of Bob Gainey, the Canadiens have achieved their goal of making the playoffs.
So what does this all mean? Now that they are here, what's expected of them? There isn't a single rational person that thinks the Canadiens stand a chance against the best team in the entire league. There aren't even many people that think that the Canadiens will even compete against the Caps.
Does this mean that there are no expectations for this group of players? Does this mean that this playoffs will be a write-off for the Canadiens? Or does it mean that they have something to prove?
The Canadiens have a lot of proven winners in their line-up. From double-champion Scott Gomez, to last year's winner, Hal Gill, this line-up is laced with experience, and won't be getting any younger. With some major contracts tying up the Canadiens' payroll through the next few years, the Canadiens simply have to find a way to win. The team you will see tonight, is the same team you will see next year. For the most part, it's the same team you will see over the next two, three, maybe even four years.
So while no one is expecting them to win this series, the pressure is quietly on.
Can the Canadiens deliver? Or will this playoffs end like all the rest since 1993, disappointing both themselves and their fans?
I'm not going to bother with the breakdowns and detailed position-by-position analysis. Both TCL writer Scott Lowe, and Jeremy Scriven at Hockey Independent have done a fantastic, observant and objective job in doing that, and for the most part I agree with their reasoning.
And if you do look at it objectively, on paper, the Canadiens seemingly have a few edges. While the Capitals will dominate in terms of forwards and secondary scoring, and I do mean dominate, the powerplays of both teams are ranked 1 and 2. The Canadiens have a distinct edge in penalty killing, in the ability of their defense, and in goaltending. Experience on both sides of the ice is about even, if not in favor of the Habs, and coaching could really go either way.
While Bruce Boudreau has proven to be an incredible motivator and a good coach, Jacques Martin can bore you to death. His defensive style may not totally suit the hand Bob Gainey dealt him at the beginning of the season, but he is a master strategist when it comes to defensive hockey, and he can shut things down if he needs to. The problem is, he makes his team play as if they always have a 2-1 lead. And that's obviously seldom the case. All throughout the season, the Canadiens were seemingly playing to get to a shootout. There are no shootouts in the playoffs, and they will have to score to stay alive.
That being said, Martin needs to let his weapons lose. Mike Cammalleri needs to find a way to score. Brian Gionta needs to keep doing what he's been doing since he came back from his injury. Scott Gomez needs to own the ice when he's carrying the puck. Andrei Kostitsyn needs to SHOOT SHOOT SHOOT, and Tomas Plekanec needs to return to the player he was in the first half of the season.
As for the defense, they will need to stick to their match-ups. Spacek and Hamrlik have been effective against Alexander Ovechkin this season, but they will need the help of Gill and Gorges. Markov and Bergeron (or O'Byrne) will need to find a way to get on there when Ovechkin isn't.
Finally, Jaroslav Halak will need to play some of the best hockey of his young career.
Is it asking a lot? Maybe. But shedding the inconsistencies and getting down to the basics are the only way the Canadiens will stand a chance.
At the very least, they can use last night's results as motivation. Three of four road teams won their matches against their heavily favored opposition. Can the Canadiens become the fourth team to do so?
Only time will tell.
Until then, there is plenty of reading material around the net to fill up your day.
Enjoy the game, hopefully we'll have something positive to discuss tomorrow,