Hurricanes, Holiday Hockey and Habs

The week between Christmas and New Year’s Day is filled with great opportunities for sports fans across the spectrum. College football bowl games, the winding down of the NFL season, featured NBA marquis-matchups and of course “holiday hockey” fill the sport menu. Like filling up on holiday food, the sports fan can overdose on a veritable buffet of sports offerings.

Cam Ward
Carolina Hurricanes goaltender, Cam Ward (Perry Nelson-USA TODAY Sports)

Hurricanes Versus Habs Holds Intrigue

One of the NHL games of great interest this week was the contest in Raleigh between the Carolina Hurricanes and the Montreal Canadiens. This matchup held great intrigue because both teams are trying to find the traction to make a legitimate run at making the playoffs here at the end of 2017. The Hurricanes went into the game with a record of 16-12-7, having earned 39 points in 35 games. The ‘Canes were ranked as the first team out of the wild card, three points behind the New York Islanders and the New York Rangers.

The Canadiens’ record before the puck dropped was 16-16-4, notching 36 points in 36 games. They were listed as in fourth place out of a wild card spot, six points out and behind the Hurricanes, the Pittsburgh Penguins and Philadelphia Flyers. At the risk of sounding trite or even melodramatic, the game was a “must-win” for both teams. At least it felt that way going into the contest.

Hurricanes’ Elusive Hope

The Hurricanes’ struggles to make the playoffs have been well-documented. As general manager Ron Francis is rebuilding his team with youth, patience is being asked of a fan base that was already short on patience when Francis took the reins of the team four years ago.

For many “Caniacs,” 2009 seems like decades ago, and the team’s 2006 Stanley Cup Finals victory is a distant memory. Hope is the commodity of the day for Hurricanes fans, and it was come and gone for the past eight seasons.

Teuvo Teravainen Hurricanes
Carolina Hurricanes forward Teuvo Teravainen (James Guillory-USA TODAY Sports)

Habs Fans Not Happy

The Canadiens have had their own emotional rollercoaster upon which they have ridden over the past few years. While recently minted head coach, Claude Julien is still in his honeymoon with the fans during this his second stint at the Habs’ helm, there is a growing restlessness with general manager, Marc Bergevin.

A colleague from Montreal told me before the game that there are still fans who are not happy with Bergevin’s trading of P.K. Subban in 2016. An excellent read on how the folks in Montreal still feel about the trade can be found at in a piece written by Brendan Kelly. This statement is compelling:

One reason why hockey fans in Montreal are still talking about the Subban-Weber trade is that it’s still far from obvious why Canadiens general manager Marc Bergevin made the deal. It’s one thing to trade a star defenceman for a top forward if management feels the team needs help on offence. More difficult to understand is why a team would swap one all-star defenceman for another. So was it really a hockey trade — or was there something more behind it?

Subban doesn’t do anything to cool the embers, but rather is happy to be completely honest – even if it does fan the fire a bit that may be starting to burn under Begevin’s seat:

You know what? Let’s get a panel. We can get (Montreal Canadiens president and co-owner) Geoff Molson, we can get Marc Bergevin, we can get (former Habs coach) Michel Therrien. We can get the whole front office and we can just throw those questions at them. The reality is that I didn’t ask to be traded. I don’t know. I never got an explanation for it.

The point is that Hurricanes fans have their issues, lately with head coach Bill Peters if the team loses more than a game. But, Canadiens fans also have theirs, and Bergevin is increasingly under fire.

PK Subban Predators
Former Has, PK Subban, now with the Nashville Predators, but he still can’t say why       (Amy Irvin / The Hockey Writers)

Frustration the Same in Any Language

One reason the Habs bring so many folks to games as part of their media entourage is because they have to write, etc in two languages, English and French. While this makes for a lot of duplication of stories, it really doesn’t matter if the tale is told in French or in down-home Southern vernacular in Carolina, frustration is universal. For fans of both the Hurricanes and the Habs, frustration has been all too real for all too long.

That frustration was evident in the game Wednesday night, which the Hurricanes won, 3-1. Fans of the Canadiens took to social media to let their frustration be heard:

Certainly, the season still has a long way to go. But, the Hurricanes did a lot in winning their game against the Canadiens. They put a little space between themselves and the Habs in the chase for a wild card slot, and held ground as the teams they are chasing also won. The Hurricanes are still three points out. It is very difficult to gain ground when trying to climb the playoffs ladder, but losses can sink you fast and hard.

A Great, Hard-fought Game

Rick Stephens at summed the contest up fairly accurately from the Canadiens’ point of view:

For at least the first ten minutes of the game, the Montreal Canadiens did not look like a team who belonged in this league. While being outplayed badly and outshot 10-1 by Carolina, the Canadiens only answer was Carey Price. The Habs MVP was the only answer to the onslaught, minimizing the damage to just one goal against by the first intermission.

The Hurricanes did come out in the first period like a team purposefully wanting to “start on time” and they did. Price played extremely well, in fact Hurricanes goaltender, Cam Ward said after the game,

You knew going into it that it was going to be a low score, facing Carey Price, who in my opinion, is the best goalie in the world.

Price gave up two goals and an empty-netter was scored, and Ward gave up one goal, a laser fired past him by Alex Galchenyuk:

For the Hurricanes, Sebastian Aho got the game winner, a power play goal in the third period. The Hurricanes have netted power play goals in their past three games, an area is showing vast improvement from just a few weeks ago. Ward, who made 23 saves and got his third straight win, seems to have reclaimed his spot as the Hurricanes’ goalie.

Hurricanes and Habs Trending

For the moment, the Hurricanes are trending in the right direction, and the Habs are not. That could change as early as this weekend, as the ‘Canes host the defending Stanley Cup Champions Pittsburgh Penguins Friday night and then play Saturday night on the road against the St. Louis Blues. The Habs visit the Tampa Bay Lightning Thursday night.

Depending on the outcomes of those three games, an update could very easily read that the Habs are trending in the right direction, etc. Every game is crucial at this point. Nothing is going to be easy for the Hurricanes or for the Habs.

As much of the world of sports fandom gets ready to head back to work after the holidays, we hockey fans will enjoy this week of “holiday hockey,” and maybe even a college football bowl game or two. Bergevin will try to keep his ever-loosening grip on the rudder of the good ship Canadiens. Fans of the Hurricanes and the Habs will both hold their collective breaths. Every shot missed and made will grow in importance as the lust for a playoff spot becomes all-consuming. It is an absolutely awesome time of the year.