From the opening faceoff at the first intra-squad game in the early days of training camp, Montreal Canadiens fans have clearly expressed their high expectations for the 2019-20 season. The main question expressed on the multitude of sports talk shows that populate the hockey-crazed media environment in the city is as close to unanimous as you can get – “will this edition of the Habs make the playoffs?”
The festival-like atmosphere outside the Bell Centre prior to the home opener against the Detroit Red Wings mirrors the anticipation that comes with the beginning of every new season. The enthusiasm is also fueled by the team’s early performance. A spirited shootout loss against the Carolina Hurricanes in Raleigh, a shootout win against the Toronto Maple Leafs and an overtime loss versus the Buffalo Sabres have created an atmosphere of excitement among fans. All three games were characterised by late game come-from-behind scenarios and featured fast-paced high-intensity hockey.
The Pressure of High Expectations
While the early season performance has been entertaining for the fans, it is still way too early to predict with any assurance whether the team will make the postseason. Most observers and analysts place the team outside of playoff contention. However, one conclusion is close to certain, the season will be characterised by constant scrutiny of not only the team’s performance on the ice, but also the decisions made in the offseason.
The impact of general manager Marc Bergevin’s signings of Ben Chiarot and Keith Kinkaid, along with the team’s decision to include rookies Nick Suzuki and Cale Fleury on the roster, will be observed closely. Expectations on veterans will be high. The oversized pictures of Carey Price, Shea Weber, Brendan Gallagher and Max Domi that form a giant mural by the west side entrance of the Bell Centre are symbolic of the importance of these players to the team.
Also, the play of Jonathan Drouin and Jesperi Kotkaniemi has been closely watched. Luckily for both, they seem to have overcome their lethargic performances during training camp. Concern over the potential for a season characterised by the sophomore jinx, Kotkaniemi has appeased that fear by scoring his first two goals of the season. His first tally in the game against the Hurricanes was the first time he has scored in an opposing rink. As for Drouin, he has a point in each of the first three games and has offered sustained efforts throughout close to 17 minutes of ice time per game. For the moment, he has silenced his most ardent critics.
Leveraging Past Greatness Is No Longer Enough
When it comes to pre-game ceremonies, few sports organisations are as effective as the Canadiens when it comes to highlighting the past success of the team in order to maximize the powerful impact of collective nostalgia. The ultimate hope is that the past glory of the most successful franchise in the NHL’s history will be rekindled and lead to new additions to the trophy case as well as increased revenues at the souvenir shop.
This year’s opening ceremony did not disappoint. Following a moving rendition of Leonard Cohen’s Hallelujah sung by a local choir while the iconic images of the team’s history are projected on the ice, the players were introduced. As they each stood at center ice holding high the symbolic torch, fans cheered loudly for the new faces and offered deafening outbursts of support for the veterans. However, this enthusiasm can be ephemeral in the grind of a long season. These vociferous cheers could quickly turn to derision and boos for the simplest of grievances such as an under-performing scoring line or a failing power play.
Many within the knowledgeable but impatient Canadiens fanbase are growing weary of the constant reminiscing and want to see, in fact they are demanding, success in the modern era. Missing a playoff spot by two points last seasonis clearly no substitute for making the springtime tournament. Montreal hockey fans are longing for the scent of playoff hockey to mix with the sweet aromas of a blossoming city when it finally exits months of harsh winter weather.
Surviving the Challenging Cycle of a Long Season
The start of the season is indeed promising but every point in the standings will be critical. Last season’s story clearly demonstrates that the points won in October can make a significant difference come April. Unfortunately for the fans at the home opener, the emotions of the pre-game activities did not translate into a high-energy performance by the team on the ice. However, notwithstanding the 4-2 loss to the Red Wings, the Habs collected four points out of a possible eight in the first four games of the young season.
The true test for the team will come later in the campaign. Inevitable injuries, slumps, performance shortcomings and the overall grind of the challenging cycle of a long regular season will bring to light the true status of the 2019-20 edition of the Canadiens. In fact, all NHL teams will go through similar cycles. The question is, which ones will be best equipped to withstand the inevitable adversity and make a push for the ultimate prize. The Canadiens will have an opportunity on Saturday (Oct. 12) to measure themselves against a team that overcame and survived adversity in spectacular fashion when the reigning Stanley Cup champion St. Louis Blues visit the Bell Centre.