The Montreal Canadiens lost convincingly to the Ottawa Senators Wednesday night by a score of 5-1. After a lopsided loss such as this, it can be difficult to find immediate (if any) positives from a hockey standpoint. However, this loss from a media perspective seems to be less detrimental for the team. The common mistake is to say “but the Canadiens lost to Ottawa.” For most of the season, that claim has not been particularly valid, especially recently, considering the Senators have won eight of their last 11 games down the stretch. Secondly, the loss changes very little in the grand scheme of their current playoff aspirations.
In any case, even with the new loss to the Senators on the books, it is clear that the attitude around the Canadiens has shifted in recent weeks, which began at a moment when their playoff push was slightly more in question. I will get into that more specifically in a moment, but first I would to provide an example of how far things have shifted from the overwhelming sense of doom and gloom that has been projected onto the team for large portions of the season.
On Monday, the Canadiens had won their third game in a row beating the division-leading Toronto Maple Leafs. Cole Caufield played the overtime hero for the second consecutive game after he picked up a pass from Jeff Petry and buried a shot high-glove on Maple Leafs’ goaltender Jack Campbell. During the post-game press conference, which this season has customarily featured one player at a time, Nick Suzuki and Caufield appeared together. Suzuki stood, comically, at the main podium while Caufield sat at a table off to the side.
When asked jokingly by The Athletic’s Arpon Basu if Suzuki felt awkward standing at the podium while Caufield was sitting, he quipped, “Yeah, we decided Cole wasn’t tall enough for the podium.” As tame or lighthearted as this joke was, it was also emblematic of the more significant recent trend that for long stretches of this season has appeared totally absent, at least from an external perspective: the Canadiens are, once again, having fun. By extension, the hope is the fans will start having more fun, too.
The Negativity of the Market
Pure negativity rather than fair criticism (which does still exist) has been the prevailing force behind much of the external reaction and response directed at the Canadiens, a team that has been in a playoff position for literally the entire season. It is entirely fair and reasonable to be critical of the season of well-documented inconsistency, for example. They have in fact struggled to go on winning streaks like the one they were on before the loss against the Senators. On the other hand, the social media landscape regarding the Canadiens (and many other teams) has been nothing short of a wasteland, with fair criticism often replaced with incoherent and unadulterated anger.
I guess that is nothing new for the internet. In contrast, though, that is why the moment with Suzuki and Caufield Monday was so refreshing. There is no doubt that the outside noise of Montreal can influence the team environment to a limited extent. However, it felt like, after another win Monday, Habs fans collectively smiled, remembering that hockey is a game often played by kids. At that moment from the Canadiens’ standpoint, it seemed like whatever negativity may have been occurring online or elsewhere, their attitude had definitively shifted and they had pushed passed it. The origins of this change in attitude can arguably be traced to one specific victory as well as the insertion of youth into the lineup.
Relieving the Pressure
The Canadiens delivered a strong blow to the Calgary Flames’ playoff hopes with a 2-1 victory on the road on April 26. It is hard to say with utmost certainty, but that win released a steady stream of mounting pressure. The massive swing saw the Canadiens go six points up of the Flames for the final playoff spot, rather than the two had they lost. From that point forward, an attitude shift was evident.
By no means has the team been perfect since that game in Calgary. In fact, since that game, the Canadiens have gone 3-2, with two of the wins coming in overtime. However, in those five games, the team has looked calm, loose even. I mean “loose” in the sense that they have avoided crumbling in games when things stop going well, for the most part — last night was an exception). It is that sort of attitude that helped lead to three straight come-from-behind home victories in the last four games.
In the past this season, the ability to overcome deficits did not seem plausible on most nights. During their three come-from-behind victories, though, the team looked capable of making it happen, and they did. I understand it is easy to say that in retrospect, but, honestly, watching those games, it was clear things were different. The team did not appear phased. Forward Tyler Toffoli described this positive attitude as being necessary for the playoffs and one driven predominantly by “will.” In those games, that will was there when maybe it had not been for parts of the season.
The insertion of players like Caufield and Jake Evans into the lineup have been positive developments as well. I single those two out for two reasons: the aforementioned Caufield has scored two game-winning, overtime goals in the last four games, while Evans has been a poster boy for the will and desire that Toffoli spoke of.
Aside from on-ice performance, the presence of the youth gives the team something (or someone) to rally behind and the the fans something new to cheer for. As a result, the overall discourse surrounding the team has changed (for now). With the team extremely close to clinching a playoff spot and with veterans getting close to returning from injury, the positives may keep coming.
One thing seems clear, the whole recent team vibe, if you want to call it that, has helped bolster and ensure the team’s playoff chances. We will see how the final games play out. In the meantime, win or lose, try to have some fun.
Hello there, folks! My name is Stephen Michaud. Like so many in Canada, I grew up playing the game of hockey from a young age. My passion for playing spawned a yearning for following the NHL and other leagues around the world. Here at The Hockey Writers I have been tasked with covering the Montreal Canadiens, which I hope to do in a detailed and honest fashion.