The NHL in Canada has reached a new low this season. For the first time since 1973, only one Canadian team qualified for the Stanley Cup playoffs, the Montreal Canadiens, and it the cards are stacked against the hopes of the Stanley Cup returning to Canada. A Canadian team hasn’t won the Stanley Cup since 1993 by the, you guessed it, Montreal Canadiens.
It wasn’t supposed to be this way for the Canadian teams this year though. The Toronto Maple Leafs went out and made some moves after a heartbreaking defeat to the Bruins in last season’s playoffs, the Senators have overachieved the past couple of seasons, and Vancouver finally rid themselves of a goalie debate and got a new disciplinarian coach on John Tortorella. Instead the Maple Leafs new acquisitions floundered, most notably David Clarkson and Dave Bolland, the Senators completely fell off the face of the Earth, and the Canucks stripped the entire team down, leaving Montreal as Canada’s only hope.
Montreal forward Brendan Gallagher said about the other Canadian teams,
“Going into the season, you look at all the Canadian teams and you’d think most of them would be contending,”
But how good of a shot do the Canadiens have at winning the Cup? The Eastern Conference has been dominated this season by the Boston Bruins and the Canadiens have to slay the beast that is Boston. Montreal went out and acquired notorious Bruin killer Thomas Vanek and Tuukka Rask doesn’t exactly have a sparkling record against the Habs, but of course Montreal has to get out of the first round, and that may prove difficult.
Montreal is facing the Tampa Bay Lightning in the first round of the playoffs. The Lightning are no slouchs. They have one of the game’s brightest young stars in Steven Stamkos and the recently acquired former Rangers captain Ryan Callahan.
The Canadiens and the Lightning were only separated by one point this season, so it proves to be an evenly matched series, but the Habs have some things in their corner. Tampa Bay goaltender Ben Bishop is currently dealing with an elbow injury and there is no word on his return date and Ryan Malone was recently arrested for DUI and possession of cocaine. Even though Malone was pretty much a non-factor this season, his arrest made a lot of news and it has to be a distraction in the Lightning locker room and it couldn’t have come at a worse possible time. Also, with Bishop still out, it definitely weakens the Lightning’s defense. Bishop has transformed himself into a top tier goaltender and a huge reason why the Lightning are back into the postseason. Bishop’s backup, Anders Lindback, has be dreadful this season and this may be the Canadiens’ shot at getting out of the first round.
The Canadiens have Carey Price, who has had a career year. Price won a gold medal at the Winter Olympics on Sochi, Russia and recorded a career high in save percentage (.927) and goals against average (2.32). I cannot stress enough the importance of a goaltender in the playoffs. Just look at how many teams have ridden their goalie to a Stanley Cup, just ask Cam Ward, Patrick Roy, and Tim Thomas. If Price gets hot or just simply defeats the Lightning in a best of seven, it gives him that much more confidence heading into the second round and possibly beyond.
Montreal has its share of injuries though with Brandon Prust still dealing with an upper body injury and Alex Galchenyuk officially ruled out for the entire first round with a knee injury, which may prove troublesome for the Canadiens.
If the Canadiens can simply defeat Tampa Bay, they can roll to an Eastern Conference title. I believe they can beat the Bruins right now in a best-of-seven and with Pittsburgh being banged up, Montreal can defeat them as well.
With the Canadiens being the only Canadian team to make the playoffs this season, much more attention will be placed on Montreal. Canada is a hockey crazed country that desperately wants the Cup back in its rightful home. Canadiens’ defenseman Josh Gorges told the press that he expects the eyes of Canada to be upon Montreal, but that it is no different than what they face on a daily basis.
“There may be more eyes within Canada watching our games. In Canada, they have their loyalties to their local teams, but come playoff time, you’ve watched when Vancouver was in the Cup (final) a few years ago.
“Calgary, Edmonton, the same thing. The whole country rallies around because they want to see a Stanley Cup come back to Canada. But I don’t think it adds anything. There’s enough pressure just because of what we’re trying to accomplish.”
Every single play, move, and game will be analyzed to death and magnified that much more by the Canadian press. They want to see a Cup and they want to see one now and they only have one chance this season with the Canadiens.
It may be a long shot for the Canadiens to win the Stanley Cup this year, but the playoffs always bring surprises. That is what’s so great about the game.
What do you think of the Canadiens’ chances to return the Stanley Cup to the Great White North? Comment below or send me a Tweet, @MarkWGraham