The end justifies the means. It doesn’t matter how the Montreal Canadiens got it done, but they officially accomplished what they set out to do at the onset of this abnormally long 2019-20 season: They made the playoffs. As a result, the campaign has to be considered a success.
Yes, if you’re keeping track, the idea is as follows: It’s been a good season for the Canadiens after they finished No. 24 in the standings and won’t have a shot at a lottery pick. The Canadiens will instead vie for a chance at the Stanley Cup as a No. 12 seed.
Canadiens Upset Penguins to Qualify
It’s admittedly a farcical concept. No one can deny that the Habs and their fans suffered through a miserable season up to the hiatus, only to masterfully upset the Pittsburgh Penguins in their best-of-five play-in series once the league started up again. Now it’s the Pens who have no other choice but to hope to draft top-prospect Alexis Lafreniere.
The Canadiens will instead focus their attention on the eventual top seed, according to the rules the NHL released in the lead-up to the return to action. It will either be the Tampa Bay Lightning, against whom the Habs went 0-4 this past regular season, or the Philadelphia Flyers, against whom the Habs went 1-0-2. While some may say the regular season means very little under these circumstances, the Habs tended to match up well against the Penguins, having gone 1-1-1 against them.
That’s one of the main takeaways here. As impressive as the victory over the Penguins is, and it is, that the Habs shouldn’t be considered legitimate Stanley Cup contenders all of a sudden. In spite of the fact the Habs were playing the team with the seventh-best record in the league and the matchup featured the largest points disparity (15) of any of the eight play-in series, they always had a shot against the Pens, especially thanks to the best-of-five format. The next round goes back to best-of-seven.
Price Steals a Series for Habs
So, the Canadiens still have a lot to prove. At the top of the list is how they’re not a one-man team, with goalie Carey Price effectively stealing two victories in this series and shutting a relatively lackadaisical Penguins team out in the other, the clinching 2-0 Habs victory in Game 4.
Price deserves a lot of credit for shaking off the rust and leading his team to victory. During a series characterized by a litany of unlikely Habs heroes leaving their mark on the scoresheet, Price was the biggest reason the Penguins as a team couldn’t do the same, with Paul Byron (and captain Shea Weber) impressively outscoring arguably the best player on the planet in Sidney Crosby four points to three.
Byron represents perhaps the biggest positive for the Habs. It isn’t that he co-led the Habs in scoring or that he seems to have rediscovered his scoring touch after having been limited to just 29 games and 10 points in the regular season. It’s that he’s healthy alongside the likes of Brendan Gallagher and Joel Armia, who each played less than 60 games, with Jonathan Drouin only getting in 27. For all intents and purposes, the Habs are healthy and, most critically in the case of Price, relatively well-rested.
Bergevin Makes the Playoffs
In other words, this is the team general manager Marc Bergevin constructed. Sure, technically Price, the biggest star he has, is excluded, considering the goalie had already been with the Canadiens for five seasons by the time Bergevin came along, but this is still the vision the GM had for this team.
It’s still an incredibly flawed vision, to be clear. After all, we are talking about a team that just about as literally as possible required divine intervention to simply earn a shot at a playoff spot. Still, with the Habs having upset the Penguins, now no one can take away from Bergevin how the Habs have avoided missing the playoffs for the fourth time in five seasons on his watch.
As far as hypothetical weird flexes go, it would be right up there with Bergevin having been one of the most-traded players in NHL history. Oddly, Bergevin’s tenure with the Habs has afforded him a degree of stability he never knew during his playing career… “oddly,” because of the general lack of results. Now, somehow, he has some, albeit without the Habs officially having even played a playoff game this postseason.
The pre-first-round victory is an accomplishment, as is the playoff berth. However, maybe it’s time for the management to re-assess their goals for this team. As uplifting as their monumental upset of the Penguins is, it’s nothing on which they should hang their hats. They can’t afford to celebrate too long, as the playoffs are literally just starting. More to the point, the Habs still haven’t won a single playoff series since 2015. If they don’t find a way to break that streak of futility, by any means necessary, the actual end will taste much more bitter than this one did sweet.
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 also written for the Montreal Gazette and Bleacher Report and worked for the NHL itself and his hometown Montreal Canadiens. He currently writes about all things Habs for THW, with it being a career highlight for him to have covered the 2021 Stanley Cup Final as a credentialed member of the press.