As the NHL season draws to a close and the Stanley Cup Playoffs begin, Montreal Canadiens fans will no longer be able to cheer on their hometown team. Granted, there’s a chance they weren’t cheering for the Canadiens anyway, between them hoping for better draft-pick odds, and, you know, the Habs sucking this season.
The point remains, hockey fans generally can’t just ignore the playoffs going on around them. So, assuming Habs fans can bring themselves to shake off their sulking and find pleasure in another fanbase’s joy, here are the top five teams for which they should cheer on toward a potential championship.
5. Pittsburgh Penguins
You may love the Pittsburgh Penguins as a jaw-droppingly exciting team with talent oozing out of every pore. Or you may hate them as a team that seemed to have Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin fall into its lap. As they’re so polarizing, the Penguins take the No. 5 slot, but there’s no denying their accomplishments over the last few seasons.
They enter the playoffs as the two-time defending champions and there comes a time when you just have to give them props and see how far they can take this thing. You kind of want to see if they can be the first team since the New York Islanders of the 1980s to pull off three straight… or get as close as possible before heartbreakingly failing. Either way, you’re probably cheering for them to reach the last round.
4. Las Vegas Golden Knights
The Las Vegas Golden Knights are the anti-Canadiens in a lot of ways, and not just because they’re, uh, good. For example, one plays in the desert, the other in, for all intents and purposes, the frozen tundra. More relevant to hockey though, the Habs entered this season with expectations (hopes) of contending. The Golden Knights? Not so much.
The Golden Knights are obviously the league’s newest team, while the Canadiens are a founding NHL franchise. The Habs also have a struggling Carey Price, while the Golden Knights have a goalie no one really expected to be successful this year in Marc-Andre Fleury (especially playing behind an expansion team).
The Habs have a struggling Jonathan Drouin, whom everyone expected to find success transitioning into their No. 1 center due to his playmaking ability. In contrast the Golden Knights have an actual center playing the position in William Karlsson, whom, despite his goal-scoring prowess, no one initially expected to find the back of the net, like at all. I mean, I could go on all day, and I didn’t even get into how they have a Subban.
The point is, if you find yourself temporarily hating on the Canadiens for all their failures, the Golden Knights could be the perfect tonic for your troubles. That’s beside the fact that, in spite of their 100-plus-point season, the Golden Knights aren’t expected to go very far, and everyone loves a good underdog, right?
3. Tampa Bay Lightning
The Tampa Bay Lightning may be a quasi-controversial selection due to their status as Atlantic Division rivals of the Habs. Think about it like this, though: They’re probably going to have to play one of if not both of the more-hated Boston Bruins/ Toronto Maple Leafs somewhere along the way. That’s got to count for something, namely the No. 3 spot.
Many might still be aching over how the Drouin trade for Mikhail Sergachev turned out as it did. And there’s no sugarcoating how general manager Marc Bergevin traded away a can’t-miss prospect at the position his team is the weakest for a gamble with a nice-sounding last name to fill another hole in the line-up.
The only consolation is, in a vacuum, it was never as bad as it appeared. In fact, the Drouin deal is suddenly looking better if for no other reason than Sergachev is no longer outscoring every single Hab. That includes Drouin, who has 13 goals and 45 points to Sergachev’s 9 and 40. Sure, he’s still a defenseman, but take the positives in a world in which Bergevin is still GM where you can get them.
Bottom line: It might make sense to actively cheer against the Lightning were Sergachev a larger factor in their success, as if to delude yourself into believing he’s not all that. He’s a factor to their success, no doubt. He’s just one small piece on a team that includes Nikita Kucherov, Victor Hedman, Steven Stamkos, Brayden Point and Andrei Vasilevskiy, though.
The Lightning losing would prove nothing in that context. It would however mean the Bruins or Leafs are moving on. So, priorities people.
2. Nashville Predators
We get it, P.K. Subban is more polarizing than the Penguins, like actual penguins at the South Pole.
If you find yourself in the camp that absolutely hates the guy consider the Sergachev argument from above. If you want to see the Nashville Predators fail simply because it would somehow prove the Canadiens got the better end of the Shea Weber trade, two things:
- The Predators reached the Stanley Cup Final last year and are this season’s Presidents’ Trophy champions. Them losing in the playoffs wouldn’t really prove much when the Canadiens didn’t make them at all.
- You’d first have to admit to yourself that Subban is the Norris Memorial Trophy candidate almost everyone believes him to be. If he wasn’t so critical, he wouldn’t be contributing so much to their failure or success, right?
There’s also the argument the Predators are the model to follow for sustained success: Build from the defense out. In a notoriously copycat league, a Predators Stanley Cup victory would likely lead Bergevin to reconsider his strategy of loading up stay-at-home types on the back end.
Of course, the Penguins, who are beyond reproach down the middle, did win last year, which prompted Bergevin to go out and acquire a winger in Drouin. So, who knows?
1. Winnipeg Jets
The Wininipeg Jets check pretty much all of the boxes a Habs fan could ever want in a proxy for the Canadiens. First off, they’re good and entertaining. Second off, they’re an underdog small-market team (who have used up only slightly more cap space than the Habs).
Seriously, you can’t help but root for them, regardless of your allegiances, seeing as they’ve yet to ever even win a playoff game let alone a round. How can you wish ill on a fanbase that has suffered as much as that of the Jets?
Third off, being deep down the middle, they represent a good model to follow for the Canadiens. Even in net, they probably went against all their instincts to go with the younger, effective Connor Hellebuyck instead of Mason, whom they had just signed to an expensive two-year deal.
Remind you of any hypothetical scenario that may be materializing in Montreal, as we speak? Sure, Price’s cap hit will be roughly 2.5 times Mason’s next season, but it’s definitely something for the Habs to think about, with regard to the dynamic between him and Charlie Lindgren.
Finally, the Jets represent one of the best chances Canada has had to reclaim the Stanley Cup since the Habs last won it. That’s something right, unless you’re a Habs fan who’s clinging to the idea that the Canadiens should be the only team north of the border to ever win it?
Reality check, though: Twelve separate franchises have won it since 1993. It’s not exactly Montreal’s any longer. It’s time to spread the love. If the Habs can’t have it, it may as well be another Canadian team.
After 10 years of writing hockey, Ryan decided it was as good a time as any to actually join The Hockey Writers for the 2014-15 season. Having appeared as a guest on such programs as CBC Radio One’s Daybreak, Ryan has written for such publications as the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently covers the Habs for THW as a columnist.