These men may play a game, but they do it seriously, and with purpose, thus does respect become a rather large deal.
The Montreal Canadiens are a team that the hockey world loves to hate; the organization has a healthy self-regard, a record number of championships, rabid fans and wealth beyond reckoning.
Everyone resents beautiful, successful rich kids – it’s what makes the world go round.
They are also little, which is bad, and play a skill game, which shouldn’t be, but sometimes is.
And now they are one step away from playing for the Stanley Cup for the first time in two decades.
No one in the Habs’ room is about to put it into those terms, of course, but everyone knows it.
After knocking off the regular season champion Boston Bruins in a series where basically no one gave them a chance – even the former Habs who work for RDS, the team’s broadcast partner, predicted a Boston win – the men from Montreal are walking a little taller.
“If you can compete against a team that’s bigger, stronger, more experienced and find a way to win, you can compete against any team in this league,” is how P.K. Subban, who has never lacked for confidence, put it.
In the moments after eliminating their eternal rivals fourth-liner Dale Weise, who now has a game seven goal to put alongside an overtime winner from the first round – all he needs to complete the driveway dreamer’s trifecta is a goal in the Cup final – stood in the dressing room, clad in towels.
“We’re a resilient group. We really believe in each other in here,” was his assessment.
It sounds like a banality, but it isn’t, not really.
Because that’s the essence of the playoffs, it allowed the Habs to overcome a 3-2 series deficit, and it’s a much more elusive quality you might believe.
Hence the displeasure over the Bruins manifesting what the Habs felt was disrespect from Boston.
Milan Lucic pounding his chest after an empty-net goal; Brad Marchand grabbing Brendan Gallagher’s helmet in a scrum and flinging it down the ice; Shawn Thornton squirting water at P.K. Subban; Lucic flexing his arm at Subban.
Well these Canadiens aren’t going to put up with any of that guff.
Weise flexed right back in game six, and in game seven, he exacted the sweetest revenge.
Afterward, in the handshake line, Lucic is alleged to have used uncourtly language with Weise and to have promised to do him harm next season.
“They just have guys that do some disrespectful things. Even in the handshake line they had a couple of guys, or sorry, just one, that couldn’t put it behind them and be a good winner,” he said. “You look at a guy like Shawn Thornton who has been around the league and he plays hard . . . he lost with class and Milan Lucic just couldn’t do that. Well I won’t get into what he said, it’s just poor, it’s a poor way to lose.”
Lucic, somewhat predictably, didn’t appreciate what Weise had to say.
“It’s said on the ice so it will stay on the ice. If he wants to be a baby about it he can make it public,” he said.
When informed that the Habs had cited the Bruins’ disrespect as extra motivation, he was similarly gruff.
“Disrespect? I don’t know what they’re talking about with disrespect. Having a goal celebration, what kind of disrespect is that? I mean…I’m not going to say anything. I’ve got nothing to say about that,” he said.
This is basic schoolyard stuff, but it is at least a little revealing. This was more than just a hockey game, this was a new generation of Habs players putting their stamp on the rivalry with the Bruins.
“There were no kind words in the hand-shakes . . . what you have to realize is respect was earned. Whether you think it was or not, no matter what anybody says, or not, they have to respect us,” Subban, who turned 25 on Tuesday, said. “And people have to respect us.”
Beyond the respect of opponents, several Habs might have built up a little extra reserve of respect within the four walls of their dressing room.
Players like Price and Subban enjoy broad influence and the admiration of their peers for what they do on the ice – they are not the only ones of course, just the biggest names – but the esteem in which players are held is variable.
For instance, the coaches thought little enough of Daniel Brière’s game to scratch him in game five.
He rebounded with a strong effort in game six, and despite playing 8:06 – and less than a minute of it in the third period – he set up the opening goal and scored the insurance marker late in the third.
“It’s not a role I’m used to playing, but you do the best you can. Being able to get a fourth-line goal in a game seven is big, you saw it with the Rangers and Brian Boyle,” said the 36-year-old, who has six points in 10 playoff games this year, and 115 in 118 career post-season games.
Another player whose standing is enhanced by the victory in Boston is Max Pacioretty, who scored 39 goals in the regular season, but had trouble lifting off against the Bruins.
Pacioretty has now scored momentous goals in each of the games – including the one that eliminated the Bruins – since he was gently called out by coach Michel Therrien for his lack of production in the series.
“It means a lot to me (to score), I’m a proud person, this year I’ve grown up a lot, I think I’ve become one of the leaders on this team, and being able to do that is a good feeling,” he said.
Pacioretty has long said that he bears no lingering psychic scars from the infamous 2011 hit from Chara that broke his neck and left him with a concussion, but the look on his face post-game indicated that he is taking particular satisfaction at having beaten Boston.
“They’re considered the best team in the league, they’re our measuring stick on how good we can be,” he said.
There will be plenty of time to assess the relative strengths and weaknesses of the Canadiens and their next opponents, the New York Rangers.
Many plotlines intersect with these two teams – Alain Vigneault, Martin St. Louis, etc. – and those will be fulsomely explored in great, excruciating detail.
But the Canadiens have learned something about themselves in the series just-ended, and it is something that all successful teams must achieve before winning championships.
They have embraced what they are, they’ve won their way, and they are forcing opponents and the hockey public to treat them with a little more regard than they did a week or two ago.