All right, hands up. Who saw this coming?
The Montreal Canadiens, who only clinched a playoff spot on the final Saturday of the regular season thanks to the “loser point” from an overtime loss to the hated Toronto Maple Leafs, are in the Eastern Conference final for the first time since winning their 24th Stanley Cup back in 1993.
The Habs did it the hard way, though, as they looked to be easy fodder for the President’s Trophy-winning Washington Capitals in the first round.
Some commentators even joked the high-flying Caps only would need three games to sweep the best-of-seven showdown but the Habs, shockingly, survived after fending off a 3-1 series deficit.
Fine, then, the Caps still might be a year away from the intestinal fortitude needed to mount a successful Cup challenge, but certainly the dream had to end with the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins, who had appeared in two-straight finals?
Well, apparently not, as the Canadiens held Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin in check, coming back from being 3-2 down and now have staved off defeat in all five elimination games that they’ve played so far.
How Montreal is winning is just as head-scratching as the fact that they’re winning, given the Habs have been outshot by a margin of an average of 17 shots in their eight victories.
That statistic certainly is helped out by massive differences in Games 6 and 7 against Washington, where they were outshot by totals of 32 and 26, respectively.
The key, of course, has been the play of goalie Jaroslav Halak, who looked shaky in Game 3 against Washington and gave way to Carey Price for Game 4.
He didn’t look great in some of the earlier losses (save percentages of .750, .769, and .838), but he hasn’t allowed more than three goals in a game since Game 1 against the Penguins, meaning the Canadiens’ forwards only had to pop a couple in the net for a chance at victory.
Sure, Halak was shellacked in Philly’s 6-0 win in Game 1, but the trend has been for him to bounce back so far in these playoffs.
That responsibility mainly has been filled by Mike Cammalleri, whose 12 goals lead the playoffs by a country mile, and Brian Gionta, who tallied twice in Game 7 against Pittsburgh last Wednesday.
Together, Gionta and Cammalleri combined for nearly half of Montreal’s goals in the first two rounds.
The Canadiens will be battle-tested as they face the Philadelphia Flyers, but those boys are no slouches themselves, having knocked off division champion New Jersey in the the first round before advancing to an improbable match-up of No. 6 vs. No 7 against Boston.
While Edmonton’s 2006 run to the Stanley Cup final as the eighth seed was surprising, the Oilers had a bit of a reputation for playing over their heads, dispatching the No. 2 seeds in Colorado and Dallas in 1997 and 1998, respectively, and then giving the Stars all they could handle in following post-seasons.
The Habs, meanwhile, have been a funny franchise in recent years, missing the 2007 playoffs before roaring to a surprise Eastern Conference championship in 2008.
Montreal lost to Philadelphia in the second round, but expectations were ramped up entering 2008-09—the franchise’s 100th season. No pressure to win a Cup in that kind of situation.
Montreal, as it turned out, didn’t even come close as the history the club hoped to recognize was bumped to the backburner by controversy with the roster both on and off the ice.
The pressure heaped upon world junior hero Price, who was anointed as the franchise’s next great goaltending legend, seemed to crush the spirit of the young netminder.
Meanwhile, lackadaisical star Alex Kovalev was sent home for a pair of games in mid-February—just days before a report linked three players, the Kostitsyn brothers (Andrei and Sergei) and Roman Hamrlik, to an organized crime ring.
Those were just the stories that made national headlines. Surely, other stories making K-2 out of Mont Royal saw the light of day within the city.
Almost mercifully, coach Guy Carbonneau was fired less than a full season after just missing out on the Jack Adams Award as coach of the year.
Last year, the Canadiens squeaked in as the eighth seed, but went out with a whimper as the rival Bruins rolled over them in four-straight. The elimination just put a disappointing lid on the time capsule of the Canadiens’ first 100 years.
But wait a minute. Years is the operative term. Wasn’t there a season wiped out a few years back? Not counting the 2004-05 lockout as a season means that this year, not last, actually is Montreal’s 100th season of play.
With all of the pomp, ceremony, and pressure of the centennial behind them, the Canadiens seem to be putting it all together in time for this post-season.
The roster received a major overhaul this year, with longtime captain Saku Koivu, Kovalev, and one-season bust Alex Tanguay all hitting the road for Gionta, Cammalleri, Scott Gomez, and Hal Gill.
For the most part, letting the outgoing players walk wasn’t hard to justify, although allowing Koivu to join the Anaheim Ducks probably caused the most consternation. But it was the players pulling on the “bleu, blanc et rouge” for the first time that gave fans fits.
Adding one of Cammalleri and Gionta certainly was progress, but with a smallish lineup to begin with, barbs flew that the Canadiens would appear as extras, playing Lilliputians in the upcoming “Gulliver’s Travels” movie, or that the team had to order a number of stepstools to have around the Bell Centre.
Gomez, meanwhile, had come off a couple of unremarkable seasons with the Rangers that were noteworthy only because New Yorkers expected more after the former Calder Trophy winner signed a seven-year, $51.5-million deal in 2007.
On the opposite side of the spectrum, lumbering defenceman Gill had a reputation for being on the slow side, but has emerged as a solid addition to the back end.
The other major off-season change was the at-the-time puzzling move of bringing in Jacques Martin as bench boss.
Although Martin led the Ottawa Senators to some stellar regular-season records early in the decade, he was unable to push a great lineup over the hump and into a Cup final.
Martin then stumbled through three unsuccessful seasons in Florida before being let go after the 2007-08 season.
Bob Hartley, who won a Stanley Cup as a coach with the Colorado Avalanche in 2001, still was available and in the running, as was former Chicago Blackhawks’ coach Denis Savard.
Perhaps with help from Cup champs Gionta, Gomez, Gill, and Travis Moen, Martin was able to get his charges lit up at the right time.
Those who believed in a first-round upset of the Capitals were ridiculed. Those who picked a second-round stunning of the Penguins likely were treated only marginally better.
But fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, well, who can blame me? But I’ll get the message loud and clear before stumbling a third time.
There is just a mystique around the organization, and a 25th Stanley Cup in the 100th season just seems like a statistic the Habs would put up, regardless of the obstacles ahead, seeming to prove that God or Zeus or whoever else lives upstairs is a Montreal fan.
Even though either the No. 1 San Jose Sharks or No. 2 Chicago Blackhawks still stand between the Habs and the Cup, there’s just too much going in Montreal’s favour, it seems.
Les Habitants already cut down the two biggest trees in the Eastern Conference, so they’re already halfway there.
On paper, this lineup probably shouldn’t even be in the NHL playoffs. But at this point, it looks like they’re going to bring the Stanley Cup back north of the border.
All right, hands up. Who saw this coming?