Of course skepticism was warranted when this whole voyage began a month ago.
Wariness, too – it’s completely understandable. It’s natural.
But the plain fact is this: The Montreal Canadiens have dusted off a pair of tough, highly regarded opponents, and now stand just one step below hockey’s brightest, biggest stage.
For better or worse, they are all Canadian hockey fans have; there is a social importance to this.
So go ahead, cheer for them in the Eastern Conference final. It won’t hurt a bit.
It doesn’t require you running out and getting a car flag – in a just world, the marketer who came up with those would be held to account – or painting your face, or splashing out $350 on a genuine official replica swath of the Sainte-Flanelle.
It isn’t strictly necessary to buy into the mythology of the franchise, learn every word of The Hockey Sweater by heart or turn your back on the Jets or Flames or Senators or whomever.
You can be a dilettante. Nobody will mind.
There’s a lot to recommend this team to the neutral fan, or even a hostile one; sclerotic is the heart that doesn’t swell when Ginette Reno sings O Canada at the Bell Centre, which may well stage the sharpest pregame ceremonies in all of sports.
Also, this is a swift, spirited team that features several compelling players and seems to have developed a real sense of belief; this is a rare and dangerous thing in the playoffs.
Any hockey connoisseur who flips on the television, takes a deep breath and averts the gaze of their Wendel Clark bobblehead or Cliff Ronning poster can appreciate the dogged work of Brendan Gallagher, the tiny, jinking miracle that is David Desharnais, the genius of P.K. Subban, the even greater genius of Carey Price.
Reasons to clamber onto the bandwagon abound, and it’s okay. This is like one of those city bus tours, where you can hop off any time you like.
A few weeks ago this space brought you the bluffer’s guide to the Habs. This seems like an appropriate time to update it.
Good hockey teams are built from the net out, so let’s start there.
Price has now outduelled Anders Lindback (predictably) and Vézina finalist Tuukka Rask (not so predictably) and will now do battle with the guy he beat in the Winter Olympic final in Sochi: Henrik Lundqvist.
Price has stolen games in these playoffs – at least two against Boston, and possibly three if you’re being generous. He’s looked calm; according to teammates, he’s even winked at them in an elimination game.
Gentlemen, start your parallels to 1993.
The 26-year-old also stood up in the dressing room to do a little rah-rahing during before the third period of Game 7 in Boston. This is a little hard to imagine given his calm, placid demeanour, but it evidently worked. He’s on a Conn Smythe trajectory.
“He’s the guy on this team,” teammate Max Pacioretty said.
The guy standing next to “the guy” wears No. 76 – you’ll recognize him by all the opposing fans booing and throwing stuff. Also: He doesn’t care.
“I really don’t care what the other team thinks; I don’t care what their fans think. If they hate me, great. Hate me. We’ll just keep winning, I’ll keep scoring and we’ll move on,” Subban said this week.
Subban is leading his team in playoff scoring, with 12 points in 11 games, and he can also defend a little. The Bruins scored zero goals in Games 6 and 7 when he was on the ice. Subban and partner Josh Gorges limited No. 1 Boston centre David Krejci, who has led the playoffs in scoring in two of the past three years, to two assists and no goals.
The other defencemen, Andrei Markov (makes passes no one else sees), Alexei Emelin (hits people, which they don’t like), Mike Weaver (who put the “man” in journeyman) and Nathan Beaulieu (small sample size, but looks the part) did the job when it mattered against Boston, and should match up well against the Rangers.
In Tomas Plekanec and Lars Eller (who thanks to the Boston press box announcer will forever be known to Montreal beat writers as Lahs Ellah), the Habs have a pair of stud two-way centres. New York’s top offensive players may not enjoy themselves a whole lot.
Everybody already knows about Max Pacioretty and Thomas Vanek (they’d the ones who score goals) but might not have a full appreciation of Dale Weise, who rather improbably is the Habs’ clutch-iest playoff scorer, and Daniel Brière, who may be the most talented fourth-line centre in NHL history (he has six points in 10 games despite playing goon minutes).
All these fine people are marshalled by a guy who has taken his lumps in the gutter press but has revealed himself to be a new man this postseason – Michel Therrien.
Yes, he stuck with Douglas Murray for one game too long against Boston, and maybe he doesn’t give Brière enough ice time, but these are quibbles. The prone-to-overheating Therrien has been a jovial presence throughout these playoffs, his tactics have been spot-on and he’s even taken uncharacteristic risks, such as plugging Beaulieu into the lineup. If the Habs progress, he’s in danger of veering into happy-go-lucky territory.
Now, these things can change quickly.
The Rangers have a terrible power play, and their goalie doesn’t have a lot of affection for the Bell Centre (4-5-2 in 12 career starts with an .876 save percentage, nearly 50 points below his career average), but they also have size, speed, grit and a massive amount of talent.
It’s a tough test, and Therrien will have to get his Omega-3s in to match wits with Alain Vigneault, the man he succeeded in his first go-round with the Habs.
But this is a time for optimism, and bandwagoneers can’t be considering the worst-case scenario.
Boston coach Claude Julien said before Game 7 that any winning team has to get the lucky bounces; the Bruins didn’t, hitting a steel mill’s worth of goal posts, and the Habs did.
A little sprinkling of fairy dust never hurt anyone, and the feeling in Montreal is this team is special. It may turn out to be, it might not, but this team has presented a rallying point in these regionally fractured, politically divided times. Montrealers of all stripes and convictions are now talking about the same thing, in the same terms, and this is no small deal.
Festival season is right around the corner; the mayor is going to let bars stay open past 5 a.m.; the Habs are on a run. The party is in full swing in Canada’s funnest city, and everyone’s invited.
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