Whatever Hab-Ened Last Week, Bring on the Bruins!
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It's hard to really explain what happened in the NHL this season. From the ridiculous amounts of injuries, to the renewed discussion on headshots, to teams completely bombing, while others bombed early, only to make magical late runs to the playoffs, to the playoff matches that were decided as late as Sunday night, the final day in the NHL regular season schedule, everything just seemed to be off for the majority of the season.
Teams like the Devils, Sens, even the Sabres and Blackhawks, struggled mightily early on due to injuries, bad contracts, or simply lack of depth or will. The Islanders suffered ridiculous injuries to star players like Mark Streit and Kyle Okposo that put their seasons in the books very early on. Nicklas Lidstrom and Marty Brodeur, two sure-fire first ballot Hall of Famers, ended their seasons with their worst stats ever. Lidstrom finishes a minus player, and Brodeur ended the year with a losing record, something that hadn't happened in nearly two decades. Young, exciting players were inexplicably traded, while other violent, dangerous, sometimes useless players were left unpunished by the league following serious incidents on the ice.
In many regards, it was just an "off" year for a lot of people, and our Montreal Canadiens were no exception to this problem. After starting the year optimistically, coming off an unexpected run to the Eastern Conference Finals last spring, it was disappointment after disappointment for the fans and players.
Andrei Markov, who went through surgery on both his legs last season, would only play seven games in November before suffering yet another knee injury. Josh Gorges would follow with a similar injury in December, as would Jaroslav Spacek a month later. Needless to say, the Canadiens' blueline has been decimated all year. Thankfully, the emergence of PK Subban as a true number one defenseman, as well as the trades for depth defensemen Paul Mara and Brent Sopel, and especially that of James Wisniewski in January, would help ease the pain, but needless to say, these injuries, along with those to star forwards such as Mike Cammalleri, Max Pacioretty, Tomas Plekanec and others would put a huge damper on the Canadiens' post season hopes.
Then there was Jacques Martin and his God forsaken system. The system that pretty much disallowed the Canadiens from ever scoring more than 2 1/2 goals in a game, that stifled their star offensive players and forced everyone to play defensively, sit on leads, and even, at times, ties or, inexplicably, one goal deficits. Yes, the coach and his system did, in the end, help the Canadiens weather the storm on some nights, but if it isn't helping the Canadiens scrounge out a win, it's working completely against them, such as in 7-0 or 6-2 losses to direct competition. But Martin just earned his 600th career win, and the Canadiens made it to the playoffs, so for now, he gets a reprieve.
Add to this all the controversies, all the dirty headshots and media debacles, and the Canadiens have plenty of things working against them. Enough to pretty much ensure that they would miss the playoffs. At least, that's what common sense and logic would dictate. You don't have much depth, you don't have a coach that lets his players play to their strengths, you don't have your top two defensemen, so all of that should have lead to an early exit, right?
Well, apparently not. Despite all these troubles, all the injuries and all the problems, the stars seem to have aligned in the Habs' favor. Despite slipping heavily back in December, and once again in March, they kept managing to pull themselves back together and balancing out their record. They managed to squeeze out wins and points every time people - myself included - started writing them off.
The end result? An eight-point, five-win and two-seed improvement in the standings over last year, and a +13 improvement in goal differential, despite scoring one less goal from the previous year. You can't explain that. But yet, the proof is there. Somehow, the Montreal Canadiens managed to be a better team in the regular season than the year before. Will this translate into a better chance to make the finals this year, or a false sense of security among the players and the team, as they head into one of their toughest post-season tests ever: The Boston Bruins.
IT HAB-ENED LAST WEEK
I think it was fairly obvious to most that the Habs would be facing the Bruins in the first round. The teams had been dead-locked in 3rd and 6th place for most of the year, and in most scenarios, the last week of the season would play out to such a finish for both teams in the standings.
In the end, the Canadiens nearly won out the final three games on the schedule, picking up five of a possible six points in their last three games. It all started Tuesday against the Chicago Blackhawks, where the Canadiens would play one of their best games of the season, at least one of their most entertaining games of the season, taking a 2-1 OT victory when it was all said and done, on a tremendous one timer goal by PK Subban.
Two nights later, it would pretty much be the polar opposite type of game in Ottawa, as the Canadiens would fall 3-2 in overtime to the Senators, in arguably the most boring game of the season. You could tell the Canadiens just wanted to come out of the game unscathed, without suffering any further injuries to their already decimated group.
On Saturday, the Canadiens would close out the season against the Toronto Maple Leafs, and it would once again be a stark contrast from the two prior games. Half the game was played like Thursday's game in Ottawa - a boring affair that neither team seemed really interested in. The other half was one of the most intriguing things I've ever seen in hockey - both teams looking to set milestones for several members of their respective teams. For the Leafs, Joe Colbourne was looking for his first points in his first game, while Mikhael Grabovski was looking for his 30th. For the Habs, after captain Brian Gionta scored his 28th and 29th of the season, the team frantically tried to get him the hat trick so he could reach 30. Mike Cammalleri scored his 19th, and the team did the same for him, so he could hit 20. PK Subban was all over the place as well, looking for what would have been a record-matching 15th goal by a rookie defenseman. In the end, none of them would achieve these goals, but the Canadiens would come out with a confidence-boosting 4-1 victory.
It was good to see Jacques Martin giving his players a little freedom in his 600th win. But you can bet that come Thursday night in game one against the Bruins, that's certainly going to change back into the "system" that apparently got the Canadiens to the playoffs in the first place. Whether this is a good thing or a bad thing, however, is anyone's guess.
THE BOSTON BRUINS
Whatever may be the case, I think it's pretty safe to assume that the last six games between these two teams, as well as all the playoffs series they've recently faced off in can be thrown out the window. No 7-0 embarrassment or 8-6 beatdown, or even 4-1 win that was unfortunately tainted by a certain incident can define what's likely to happen between the Canadiens and Bruins over the next two weeks. No 82 game schedule for either team, no division championship or 6th seed finish will be a clear indication of what might happen in this first round playoff series.
It's safe to say that there's bad blood between these two teams. From the general dominance by the Canadiens early in the season and in years past, to the ugly incident involving Chara and Pacioretty in March, an incident that broke Pacioretty's neck and that somehow led to pundits in and around the league, and on the Bruins themselves somehow turning the cheapshot around on the Canadiens, if you can imagine that, and the Bruins complete and utter dominance of a hapless group of Canadiens in their last encounter in Boston just a couple of weeks ago, there is plenty of very recent history between these two teams.
But how either team will react is anyone's guess. Both the Bruins and Canadiens know that they can easily beat each other badly under the perfect circumstances. They also know that things can severely get out of hand, and that all it will take is one dirty hit, one slur, one scrum for things to really explode.
Logic would dictate that the Bruins, the clearly superior and, more importantly, healthier team should handle the Canadiens easily. Of course, logic often dictates things that don't end up coming to fruition, just ask the Capitals and Penguins from last year's playoffs. Can the Canadiens catch lightning in a bottle two seasons in a row? It's fairly unlikely. But it's not impossible. Generally speaking, the Habs match-up very well with the Bruins, and have a tendency to beat them when no one's expecting it. Then again, under Jacques Martin, and with so many major injuries, and more importantly, with Carey Price, who is 0-8 in his last eight playoff starts, including 2009's 0-4 sweep at the hands of none other than the Bruins, it's truly anyone's guess what this team can do, or probably won't do, against Boston in a playoff series.
For me, the most interesting aspect to this series is the fact the Bruins were essentially the catalysts to all the changes that Bob Gainey made in the summer of 2009. A 4-0 sweep by the Bruins was embarrassing enough for Gainey to change half the team and hire Jacques Martin to helm the group. If the Canadiens are similarly embarrassed again over the next two weeks, will it result in similar chances by the current GM, Pierre Gauthier? Similarly, will a win justify the changes and ensure the jobs of the General Manager and coach heading into the future?
For all these reasons and many more, this is one of the more interesting playoff series for the Canadiens in years. Anything can happen, and while most predictions will have the Bruins coming out victorious, to me, it's the most unpredictable series of the first round, and I'm definitely looking forward to watching it!
I already told you about our new facebook page, and there will be plenty of coverage over there during the first round. You should obviously keep an eye on the site as well for pre-games by Jason Pietroniro, as well as recaps by Shahab Khan and Steph Darwish. I will of course be chiming in as I always do. Keep an eye out, also, for liveblogs, prediction blogs and much more, so stay locked on TCL during the playoffs and follow me on twitter for even more updates!
Have a good week, and Go Habs Go!