It was a cabinet minister – Jean Marchand way back in the 1960s – who said the best thing about Ottawa was the road to Montreal.
Certainly it was a happy trip for Canadiens fans following Montreal’s 2-1 victory over Ottawa Senators on Friday.
Marchand’s line actually holds amazingly true for former Ottawa hockey people. Montreal Canadiens general manager Pierre Gauthier was once GM in Ottawa. It was Gauthier who brought coach Jacques Martin to Ottawa; Martin now coaches Montreal. Martin hired Perry Pearn to be his assistant in Ottawa and again in Montreal (until earlier this season when Pearn was unexpectedly let go). Trevor Timmins went from the Senators to Montreal’s director of player development. Former Senators captain Randy Cunneyworth is now a Montreal assistant coach. Former Ottawa video coach Pierre Groulx is now goaltending coach in Montreal. Former Senators scout Frank Jay now scouts for the Canadiens.
There may be no comparable one-way street in sport. The Senators don’t even have a single player on the roster from Montreal.
These are two Canadian teams that appeared to be heading in different directions in this most surprising first month of the NHL season that finds the Toronto Maple Leafs and Edmonton Oilers leading their conferences and the Boston Bruins in last place in theirs.
It has at times been as if all conventional wisdom has been turned on its ear. The disastrous Phil Kessel trade – Toronto giving up two first-round draft picks and a second-round pick to Boston, which went on to win the Stanley Cup without him – now has to weigh the fact that Kessel is leading the league in scoring with 21 points in only 13 games. As for the worst deal in Ottawa Senators history – a forced trade that sent sniper Dany Heatley to the San Jose Sharks for three seemingly empty jerseys, one of those jerseys, Milan Michalek, has almost twice as many points, 13, as Heatley, since dealt away by San Jose, has for the Minnesota Wild.
Soccer may be the beautiful game, but hockey can be the bewildering one.
One month into the 2011-12 season and the Canadiens, supposedly a mature team of high expectations, had but 10 points going into Friday’s match in Ottawa. The Senators, on the other hand, had 14, despite being in such a “rebuilding” phase that fans were urged to have no expectations at all. The Senators had the league’s top power play, somewhat offset by one of the NHL’s weakest penalty killing. In virtually every measurable category, the Montreal Canadiens have been rather unremarkable.
And yet, going into Friday’s game, there was a growing sense that Montreal, having won three in a row, might be righting a listing ship. As for Ottawa’s run of six successive victories, expectations had dipped somewhat following a 5-3 loss to the Bruins and a concussion that was keeping team captain Daniel Alfredsson out of the lineup.
Sure enough, despite the suggestions of the first month, the Canadiens won this match-up, Andrei Kostitsyn’s winning goal coming on a stunning giveaway by young Ottawa defenceman Erik Karlsson who, ironically, had been the Senators’ brightest light in October. Erik Cole also scored for Montreal, with Ottawa’s lone mark coming from Zack Smith.
There might have been a time in the NHL when a rocky start or a surprisingly good one would not matter all that much once the realities of an 82-game season set in, but this has no longer been so for a number of seasons.
“It’s huge,” says Montreal GM Gauthier. “Parity in the league today means that every game, every point can end up counting for so much.
“We watch the scoreboard now from Game 1.”
Gauthier says that the NHL season is such a marathon that every marker on the run has significance.
“You can cramp up early,” he says, without specifically pointing to his own charges, “and then you’ve got all those racers ahead of you and all that distance to make up. Or you could start out well, feel great, and come up short in the final stretch.
“You just can’t know.
“All that’s for sure is that, these days, hockey can be a very humbling experience.”
And that no one can know for sure what lies at the end of the road.