It’s almost fitting the last game before the Montreal Canadiens got eliminated from playoff contention came against the New York Rangers. That’s because the last game between the two teams in late November is both the last one the Habs looked like a contender and the one when it all unraveled, with goalie Carey Price getting injured.
The Montreal Canadiens Won?
The Habs won that contest 5-1, getting two goals from Devante Smith-Pelly, which should tell you all you need to know on how many cylinders that team was firing. The fact that the Habs arguably looked more dominant in that victory than the Rangers did in their most recent one (i.e., very), is both, at the same time, irrelevant and indicative of the potential this team once had, considering New York is likely headed to the playoffs and Montreal not.
Ultimately, though, “this” Habs team is a poor imitation of that incarnation from earlier this season. One look at the team’s injury report will reveal as much. The Habs simply didn’t have the horses to compete over the last few months, with some still-healthy Habs taking a beating like a rented mule in the media instead of for their lack of clutch performances in their absences.
Whether or not such criticism laid at the feet of players like Max Pacioretty is unfair (it is), injuries should never be an excuse as to why a given team underperforms. For example, the Toronto Maple Leafs lead the league in man-games lost and they were going be bad no matter what.
Admittedly, yes, the top nine teams on that list are currently out of the playoffs, following action Sunday night. However, the tenth-place Florida Panthers are leading the Atlantic Division… the same division the Habs were thought to be favored to win entering this season (among other lofty predictions).
In other words, you wouldn’t know it to look at Montreal’s pedestrian (to be kind) 34-36-6 record, but this team is still close to contending. It, of course, remains to be seen if we’re talking rearview-mirror “close,” with any shot of a Stanley Cup for this specific group of players being behind them.
The Pieces Are There
Regardless, the pieces are clearly there. It’s just a matter of putting them together properly, and, yes, staying healthy, because, excuse or not, it is a viable way to at least ensure a shot at success. Last year the Habs got off easy in that regard, while this year luck was not on their side, in more ways than one.
It all points to a potentially quick turnaround for a team that has won two division titles since the last lockout, making it to the second round twice and the Eastern Conference Final once in that span, coming up short in the latter instance again coincidentally against the Rangers (2013-14).
Believe it or not, an injured Carey Price back then was not the reason for that loss as a heroic effort by backup goalie Dustin Tokarski went to waste, especially in an uninspiring 1-0 Game 6 elimination loss.
So, the parallels between that playoff series and this season are undeniable. Losing Price may have been the beginning of the end, but that was only the Scylla to the Charybdis, or whirlpool, formed by all the other factors contributing to Montreal’s supposedly lost season.
Navigating directly into that whirlpool without even altering course or head coach Michel Therrien’s strategy, when he had ample time to make adjustments, didn’t exactly help to right the ship.
The thought process that this team cannot win without Price may hold some legitimacy as he is the team’s best player. However, making the same mistakes with someone replacing him in net isn’t exactly proving that theory beyond a shadow of a doubt, as that’s all they are: mistakes that may actually be able to be avoided.
Fans won’t find out this season, hence the aforementioned irrelevancy of how well the Habs matched up against the Rangers in November. However, there is always next year. While far away, it is visible within the distance from out of the windshield. It all depends on the road Habs management decides to take this offseason.
It’s only a lost season if the Canadiens allow it to be.