To start, a history lesson, because you have to go back a long way to find a Montreal Canadiens team wallowing as low in the standings as this year’s.
The year was 1939, and with war brewing in Europe, the Habs’ season got off to an inauspicious beginning: Newly appointed coach Albert (Babe) Siebert drowned in Lake Huron shortly before training camp opened.
The team started well enough, 4-0-2, but things unravelled from there. They won only three of their final 35 games, at one point dropping 15 straight at home.
They finished dead last in the seven-team NHL.
Fast-forward more than 70 years, and the Habs find themselves poised to record their worst finish since that blighted 1939-40 season.
Montreal has lost five in a row and sits last in the Eastern Conference. The Habs entered Wednesday night’s games just two points ahead of the Edmonton Oilers, who occupy 29th spot in the 30-team standings.
The Habs’ season may have 18 games remaining, but it is effectively over, and the players know it.
That’s a harsh reality for most on the team to accept, like 22-year-old forward Max Pacioretty, who has never missed the playoffs at any level of hockey.
“It’s hard for me to go out there and know there’s almost not much point to the game for the team,” he said. “For me personally, I’ve never had to deal with it, and I think it’s messing with my head a little bit, but it’s just another one of those obstacles to overcome.”
Teammate Ryan White, another of the Habs’ youth corps, expressed similar sentiments; this losing thing is new to nearly everyone on the team, and it’s no fun.
“When I was a kid,” White said, “we played in Winnipeg all the time and we used to get pounded pretty good, but since then I’ve always been on pretty good teams. This is definitely a tough situation. It hurts your pride, it’s tough leaving the rink after a loss.”
With the team’s playoff hopes approaching the state of snow removal in downtown Montreal this week – essentially non-existent – they are searching for other reasons to play.
“These guys have to be playing for now, but also for next year,” said coach Randy Cunneyworth, whose position and that of his boss, Pierre Gauthier, may also be beyond saving.
One new arrival who made a strong first impression was tough guy Brad Staubitz, who got into a fight and was also penalized for hauling on Lightning forward Ryan Malone from the bench as the latter pounded on an unwilling Alexei Emelin.
“He showed up for the team,” White said approvingly.
Though Staubitz, who has eight career goals, won’t help fill the net, Cunneyworth said the impending free agent’s contribution will be measured in other ways.
“Nobody will admit it openly, but I think I can admit it makes a team more cohesive when you’ve got that element,” the coach said.
Having a Staubitz is a departure for the Habs, who essentially fired former enforcer Georges Laraque two seasons ago. But the time is ripe for experimentation on a team that is at its lowest ebb since its last Stanley Cup conquest, in 1993.
The Habs have been weaving all over the road since former team president Ronald Corey cleared out GM Serge Savard and coach Jacques Demers in 1995. Their Curse of the Bambino moment came a few weeks later when they traded Hall of Fame goalie Patrick Roy with both player and organization in a fit of pique.
But even the Corey-Réjean Houle era spared fans the humiliation of a last-place finish.
The 2000-01 season was undoubtedly a low point; they finished 11th in the conference and had their worst home record since 1940.
This year is shaping up to be as bad or worse.
After a last-place finish in 1935-36, the Habs reacquired former star Howie Morenz, and finished atop the league the next year (although they went into a tailspin after Morenz died unexpectedly after breaking his leg).
Fans may be inclined to see an omen, at least in terms of the turnaround; Morenz’s great-grandson Blake Geoffrion, acquired in a trade two weeks ago, will make his home debut on Thursday night against Minnesota.