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Coach Jacques Martin of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images) (Phillip MacCallum//Getty Images)
Coach Jacques Martin of the Montreal Canadiens. (Photo by Phillip MacCallum/Getty Images) (Phillip MacCallum//Getty Images)

Stephen Brunt

Desperate times for Canadiens Add to ...



All of that, the hopes and dreams and twists and turns that span from autumn to the first days of spring, now on one night in April could be over in a flash.

Hockey doesn't die in Canada when the championship aspirations of NHL franchises based here are extinguished. There are other games and other rooting interests, the world championships, the Memorial Cup.

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Life goes on, the great diversion goes on.

But there's no arguing the deflating effect when the last hope bows out short of hoisting the Stanley Cup, as has been the unbroken pattern dating to 1993. It's a sad point of demarcation, marking the end of most real, hard-core passions (though life-long Detroit Red Wings devotees in Southwestern Ontario might beg to differ), which is reflected in the end of sky-high television ratings.

And with the possibility of that finale playing out on two fronts in a single evening, Wednesday could be an unusually early national Get-On-With-It Day.

What may be happening in Vancouver right now is a collapse and choke and gut-punch of epic proportions, with the entire traumatic 40-year history of the franchise hanging over the game there against the Chicago Blackhawks on Tuesday. The Canucks ought to have shrinks working as ushers, so loaded will be the atmosphere, so tied will the home team's performance be to the home town's mental health.

Here, though, where expectations used to get crazily out of whack most every spring because of a lingering sense of manifest destiny around the Canadiens, a most un-Montreal perspective has crept into the local zeitgeist.

These Habs are a good-but-not-great hockey team, and no one is really pretending otherwise. They made a heroic run to the conference final last year, thanks in large part to the remarkable goaltending of the since-departed Jaroslav Halak and great scoring streak by Mike Cammalleri, but that was more happy fluke than harbinger.

On a good night, when they're disciplined and firing on all cylinders and goalie Carey Price is in top form, they can give anyone a decent scrap (which in the land of parity/mediocrity that is the current NHL, could in fact get a team pretty far, especially coming out of the Eastern Conference, if it cashed in on every possible break). And with the combination of Price and defenceman P.K. Subban as core building blocks, there is legitimate hope for the future.

Still, there's not a whole lot of royal jelly on this squad, and minus two of their top four defencemen (Andrei Markov and Josh Gorges), believing that these Canadiens were bound for glory this spring required a whole lot of rose-coloured extrapolation. Montrealers know their Habs are pluggers rather stylists, they know they're not championship material right now, they're not happy about any of that, but they're not torn in half by the notion, either.

So, really, it has so far played out pretty much according to script: Against their great rivals, the Boston Bruins, following a season in which there was precious little to choose between the two teams, the Habs trail the best-of-seven first-round playoff series 3-2 after unexpectedly claiming the first two games in Boston, and then unexpectedly dropping the next three in a row, including a double-overtime heartbreaker last Saturday.

They're not out of it by a long shot, but if Montreal's season ends Tuesday, no one will be overly shocked. And with a bounce here or there, no one would be overly shocked, either, if they clawed back to at very least force a Game 7.

"There's really nothing to say," centre Scott Gomez said after the Canadiens practice Monday. "We don't want to go home yet, it's a great group of guys, the only thing you can think when you wake up is, 'We're going back to Boston'. That's the only thing that's got to be on our minds … we all know the job we need to do."

They do. Everyone knows. And if they're not up to the task, at least spring has finally, barely sprung, a Montreal summer of terrace life and festivals and Formula One racing and all the rest is not so far away.

That's not playoff hockey, but that's not bad at all.

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