So you’re bummed that your team got eliminated from the playoffs, and you can’t quite bring yourself to switch into baseball or golf mode.
It’s okay, we’ve got you covered.
Sure, for fans of other Canadian NHL teams, cheering for the Montreal Canadiens feels a little like rooting for Donald Trump, or tooth decay. But who else are you going to throw your support behind? Columbus?
There’s much to recommend backing a playoff underdog, but hey, the Habs haven’t won jack in 21 years, so that’s kind of what they are – not very Evil Empire-y at all.
Plus, Montreal remains this country’s most interesting city (great restaurants, beer in corner stores, colourful corruption scandals). These things count, I think we can all agree.
Problem: You haven’t really followed the Habs this year, because, well, you hate them with a passion.
Fret not: Speaking knowledgeably to friends and co-workers about the only Canadian NHL team that has even a notional chance of hoisting the Stanley Cup is a function of the following bullet points:
You may have heard of him.
Canada’s Olympic goalie is pretty much the best thing about the Habs.
You’ll hear people say he hasn’t been able to perform in the playoffs, but don’t believe it.
True, he cost his team a pivotal game against Ottawa in the first round last season.
However, he was brilliant the previous year against Boston, and, anyway, he emerged from the second-biggest pressure cooker in hockey a few months back with a shiny gold medal.
He grew up on a reserve in Anahim Lake, B.C., he likes to ride horses in the off-season, he’s the only world-class goaltender playing for a Canadian NHL team (sorry, Leafs fans, but it’s true).
That’s what a blogger on fan site habseyesontheprize.com has taken to calling the line of David Desharnais, Thomas Vanek and Max Pacioretty. They may not be great defensively, but this is where all the goals come from. The point-a-game Vanek, a trade-deadline acquisition, has crazy skill and is here for a good time, not a long time. Pacioretty fell one shy of being the Habs’ first 40-goal guy since 1994, not bad for someone who has an undeserved rep as a perimeter player. But the discerning fan will note that the 5-foot-9 Desharnais – his official height measurement is a triumph of optimism – is the zone-entering, 360-degree-visioning, playmaking genius of the group. He was undrafted, worked his way up from the ECHL, earned a long-term NHL deal, had only one point in his first 19 games this season, got benched, and now has 50 points in his last 56 games.
He’s good and isn’t shy about it, which is why every other NHL team hates him. You’ll hear loose talk about how his own coaches and some teammates feel that way sometimes; ignore it. Subban is a big-game player and an offensive catalyst (fourth in the NHL in scoring by defencemen).
In the postseason, he and partner Josh Gorges will be seeing a lot of the opposition’s top players. Andrei Markov (known as the General) and Alexei Emelin have been handling that duty in the latter part of the season, but despite all the stuff you’ll read and hear about the Habs’ blue line, Subban’s the guy, the difference-maker. Also, he’ll be the one skating through people with the puck on his stick.
Partial to wearing turtlenecks under his uniform, speaks in a monotome and once said of a poor playoff performance that he played like a little girl. That’s not politically correct, of course, but it shows a self-critical streak, which is the key to self-improvement. He won’t get a lot of love from the Selke Trophy voters, but he’s a defensive stud and one of the top half-dozen two-way centres in the game. Lately he’s had a more offensive role playing with Alex Galchenyuk (20-year-old superstar in waiting) and Brendan Gallagher (economy-sized power forward) – you’ll be hearing a lot about that line. Plus, whenever Plekanec is on the ice with Subban and Gorges, the opposition’s offensive numbers have a habit of cratering.
These would be Daniel Brière and Lars Eller. Brière is old, and little, but he’s a career point-per-game guy in the playoffs, and that’s why he’s here. No reason he can’t perform, particularly if he plays somewhat sheltered minutes. They say speed kills, but in the playoffs, balanced scoring will get you every time – Brière brings that. Eller was the team’s best centre (playing with Galchenyuk and Gallagher) last season going into the playoffs, and losing him to injury in the first game hurt. He’s had an iffy year, but at his best he’s very nearly as effective defensively as Plekanec. He’s just bigger and more creative offensively. Eller plays a lot with captain Brian Gionta, who formed a pretty snappy defensive duo with Plekanec. Beware pint-sized former New Jersey Devils wingers.
People will tell you the Habs are undersized, and soft, and blah, blah, blah. They’re not the biggest team in the league, but the playoffs are about stick-to-itiveness and heart, not heft. It’s true that Brandon Prust and Travis Moen – tough, penalty-killing fourth-liners – have suffered late-season injuries and will doubtless be limited in the playoffs, but there’s plenty of sandpaper to go around (Ryan White, Mike Weaver, Douglas Murray, Jarred Tinordi, Emelin). Plus, the Habs can throw some speed at you on the fourth line in the form of Michaël Bournival and Dale Weise. See above re: speed.
Yes, Michel Therrien occasionally does goofy things. Like preaching a dump-and-chase style. Playing human battleship Doug Murray more than Subban at even strength in a recent game. Or putting Francis Bouillon on the power-play. And declaring earlier in the season that “we’re a grinding team” (no Michel, we are not). Yes, Ottawa’s Paul MacLean ran circles around him in the first round last year. But give the guy a break – he has coached in a Cup final, his team finished with the third-best record in the East and it wasn’t a fluke. He’s a motivator, his special teams philosophy is top-level, and his approach of defensively stalwart, smart, positional hockey is a basic requirement for playoff success.
The Habs have been hard to define this year, starting out as a dominant puck-possession team, then falling off a Leafs-like cliff at mid-season, and then rallying after the Olympic break. They’ve ridden their goaltender a little too often for comfort, but this is a team that has showed it can drive possession when the game is close – which correlates strongly with winning – and appears to have sorted out its issues with scoring at even-strength. Throw out terms like Corsi, Fenwick or PDO if you must, but the main takeaway is that when the Habs hold on to the puck and manage to unlock the opposing fore-check, they can play with anyone. This is a flawed lineup, but in the East anything is possible, and the Habs have the pieces to go on a run if their luck holds.
There. You’re all set. Just remember: If for some reason it all starts to go sideways (as it inevitably has for two decades), you can always blame the goalie. It’s a long and proud tradition here in Montreal, and even though it makes no sense, it’s probably simplest to just go with it.