By Gregorio Lentini
The Montreal Canadiens ended the regular season on a high note. They finished 1st in their division and 7th overall with 103 points. Then came the playoffs.
There was reason to be optimistic.
Though they don’t possess a true #1 center, many thought the Habs had a team that was well-suited for the playoffs. The Habs own arguably the best goaltender in the entire NHL. The team is packed with players who have been renowned for their experience and character. They were also playing dominant hockey under head-coach Claude Julien.
The other reason many thought the Habs would go far was because they faired quite well against teams that were in their bracket. During the 2016-17 regular season, the Habs only lost a combined total of one game against the Senators, Bruins and Rangers.
Unfortunately, fans soon discovered that this year’s playoffs would be anything but predictable.
The Chicago Blackhawks, the third-best team in the NHL based on the standings, were eliminated in four straight games and were outscored 13-3 in their series. This, after many pundits predicted that they would even win the Stanley Cup. The Washington Capitals, the league’s best team, were supposed to eliminate the youth-filled Toronto Maple Leafs with ease. Instead, the Leafs brought the Caps to 6 overtime periods and won 2 games. The San Jose Sharks, 2015-16 Stanley-Cup Finalists, were eliminated by a team (the Edmonton Oilers) who hadn’t made the playoffs since 2006.
Much like Chicago and San Jose, Montreal’s playoffs would be short-lived.
It’s a shame considering how well they started their series.
The Habs lost Game 1 due to an abnormal Rangers’ goal in the first period, even though the Habs were the better team for the majority of the game. However, the Habs were spectacularly resilient in Game 2, tying it up with 17 seconds left and winning in overtime. They dominated Game 3 by outshooting, out-chancing, and outscoring the Rangers 3-1. But then, the Habs lost Games 4 and 5 by close one-goal games (2-1 and 3-2), and Game 6 was not lost by much either.
The truth is, the Habs were the overall better team. They were the faster and more physical team for the majority of the series; even in games they lost. They had plenty of good scoring chances. The problem for the Canadiens was that, between the two teams, there was only one true difference-maker: Rangers’ goaltender Henrik Lundqvist.
Lundqvist consistently invigorated the Rangers by making difficult and timely saves. Though Carey Price held his own, he let in some avoidable goals. Price is always under pressure to be otherworldly and should never be blamed for losses considering how often he carries his team. The only problem is that there were a few goals, especially the first Rangers’ goal in Game 6, which were very preventable. The elimination was not Price’s fault alone, but in a series that was this close, those goals made a difference. Granted, the team in front of him had to bury their chances (specifically top scorers Galchenyuk and Pacioretty who combined for zero goals in the entire series), but Lundqvist was nearly unbeatable.
It’s now time for the Canadiens’ management to look in the mirror.
They have players that need to be signed before free agency (namely Radulov and Markov). They have to figure out who to protect before the expansion draft in June. Everybody knows that they also have to acquire a true #1 center by trading away some big pieces (possibly Galchenyuk, Beaulieu and some draft picks).
A lot will happen in the offseason. General-manager Marc Bergevin will have to make some tough decisions. Even though Bergevin does not believe in “cup-winning windows,” the time to win the Stanley Cup is in these next few years.
Afterwards, teams like Toronto, Edmonton and Tampa, who are currently young and very talented, will be at the top of the pack. Though the window to win the cup won’t necessarily be closed, the Canadiens’ best chance to win is while the old guard (Chicago, L.A.) decline and the new guard (Toronto, Edmonton) are still young.
I would, however, like to end in a more empathetic tone:
Even though the Habs finished the season off on a disappointing note, at the end of the day, this team is still made up of athletes who work day-in, day-out to get better. They have to deal with the constant pressure of playing in the hockey-mecca that is Montreal. They have to wake up to never-ending criticism which is often exaggerated and nonsensical. It doesn’t help that Montreal’s fan base is polluted with fans who believe that by being negative, they are being more honest. They overgeneralize stats, disregard context and refuse to be realistic. The truth is: the Habs played a heck of a regular season. They overcame several injuries to key players and adjusted to a new coach’s system mid-season. If Lundqvist had played a smidgen worse, the Habs would have most likely been in the Conference Finals proving their worth.
So, I’ll be the first to say: Good work Canadiens. Thank you for a strong season of hockey, for putting the effort in each night and for giving us all something to look forward to in this world that is getting ever more complicated and intense as each day goes by. We’ll see you again next year, and maybe, when that time comes, you’ll have a better fate.