The Montreal Canadiens’ 2020-21 regular season was always going to finish the way it did, with the Canadiens staggering to the finish line. Once the Habs had their schedule condensed because of the NHL COVID-19 protocol and were forced to play 25 games in 43 days, them going 10-13-2 in those games was almost pre-ordained.
Danault, Gallagher, Price, Weber All Out
Admittedly, the exact record had yet to be determined, but there was always going to fatigue setting in, nights on which they didn’t belong on the same ice as opponents and resulting injuries. That they came to key players, like Brendan Gallagher (broken thumb), Phillip Danault (concussion), Shea Weber (upper-body) and Carey Price (one lower-body, one concussion) only reinforces the notion the Habs deserved a better fate in the standings. And, yet, in the end, there are really no excuses for the Habs to have just barely earned a playoff berth following the 5-0-2 start they earned back in January through sheer on-ice dominance.
Consider the work general manager Marc Bergevin did last offseason, building up his team. As a result, the Canadiens were supposed to have the necessary depth not just to combat injuries but score more goals than they did, a 27th-ranked 2.54 goals per game, if you exclude the 5-0-2 start.
Yes, Weber, who played just two seconds fewer than team-leader Jeff Petry per game, got hurt at an inopportune time. However, he hadn’t exactly been having a good season up to that point. Meanwhile Price getting put on the shelf not once, but twice far from helped. Regardless, backup Jake Allen did a serviceable job in his absence to the point of winning the Jacques Molson-Beauchamp Trophy as the team’s top unsung hero, earning a better save percentage than Price, in more games played to boot. So, that’s not an excuse either.
No Excuses for Canadiens
Five years ago, with both Price and Gallagher similarly injured at the same time, it became abundantly clear the Canadiens needed the latter’s presence and offense up front more than superstar goaltending. Disappointingly, nothing has really changed in that regard, even if primarily because Bergevin has spent nine years espousing the need for character. Yet again, once his top “character” guy went down, so did the team’s overall play, not just marginally as one would expect, but to the tune of 11 goals scored and two shutouts in the next seven games.
Yes, the condensed scheduled was a definite factor, but any suggestion it’s solely to blame for the Canadiens’ record is revisionist history. The fact of the matter is not only were the Canadiens mediocre between their fast start to the season and their slow finish (9-8-7), but their ineffectiveness down the stretch became apparent right away once they returned to the ice.
To their credit, the Canadiens started out those 25 games with a complete 4-0 victory over the Edmonton Oilers and went 3-1 in their first four. However, they had yet to so much as play back-to-backs at that point. The first half of their first back-to-back, they failed to get a win, losing 3-2 to the same Toronto Maple Leafs they’ll face in the first round. They proceeded to lose the second half of the back-to-back, a third straight game and nine of their next 13.
That first loss to the Maple Leafs may have been a close game. However, breaking it down, the Canadiens failed to deliver before the condensed schedule technically hit them. Furthermore, they had a healthy lineup at the time (almost immediately after 10 days away from the ice). All things taken into consideration, it doesn’t really instill confidence in their ability to perform in the face of adversity and upset the top-ranked Leafs in Round 1.
Sure, the Canadiens admittedly did face adversity, probably more so than most other NHL teams. However, there’s a difference between facing adversity and overcoming it. Ultimately, were it not for that 5-0-2 start, there’s a very good chance the Canadiens would have failed to reach the playoffs, which, in spite of it having been the official goal at the start of the season, is not a legitimate standard for success, considering 16 of 31 teams make it. That’s the definition of mediocrity, especially with the Habs entering the postseason with the worst record of those 16 teams.
Bergevin’s Flawed Vision
In effect, the Canadiens are in very real danger of failing to build on last season’s successful first-round finish. Not just fail to build on, but do worse than last year’s edition, which, officially speaking, finished 24th in the standings. After all, these Habs no longer have the benefit of a best-of-five play-in round.
If the Canadiens manage to beat the Maple Leafs and reach Round 2, only then can this season be considered a success. And, in their defense, it’s definitely possible that the Habs pull off the upset. Stranger things than a fourth-ranked team beating a No. 1 seed have happened, and the historic rivalry between the two sides should help narrow the gap between the skill levels of the two squads. After all, for the Canadiens, it’s not just about potentially losing in the first round, but losing to the Maple Leafs. There’s no shame in losing to a better team, but there is in letting the Leafs reach the second round for the first time since 2004 on your watch.
Looking at it from the other angle, losing to the Maple Leafs in that context would only reinforce how much of a failure this season has been from the Habs’ perspective. With one season left on Bergevin’s contract, he still has a lot to prove himself, namely that his vision for his team, now on its third head coach in Dominique Ducharme (interim), who Bergevin referred to as “his guy” upon hiring him to replace Claude Julien, is the right one.
A successful postseason would be a saving grace, because the regular season clearly wasn’t. Granted, in a vacuum, Bergevin did excellent work last offseason. Few saw this season ending the way it has as a result, but it did. It’s not about putting together a team that looks good on paper, but one that performs well on the ice, and there’s little denying Bergevin’s didn’t.
Thankfully, as has become this team’s mantra, anything can happen in the playoffs. While anything different than what fans have seen over the last little while would be a step up, only a first-round victory would reinforce the notion Bergevin has what it takes to transform this team into a contender, especially before his contract expires after 10 years on the job.
After a full week of rest before Game 1 next Thursday and a presumably healthy lineup set to face the Leafs, the Canadiens have every opportunity to put the best version of themselves on display, much like when they returned to the ice after their COVID scare. Things have to turn out differently this time around, though. There is only one satistfactory conclusion to this upcoming series.
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.