Rest assured, the Montreal Canadiens did not win the Stanley Cup by beating the Toronto Maple Leafs. Even their die-hardest supporters should be unable to be convinced that they did.
Canadiens Happy but Not Satisfied
Granted, it’s been so long since the 1993 Stanley Cup championship, few fans may actually remember what it feels like. Still, assuming fans can readily acknowledge there’s still a long way to go before the end of the road, the Habs themselves can at least rest easy knowing they’ve successfully accomplished the one goal most may have set for them at the onset of the 2020-21 season.
Of course, no one legitimately expects the players to be satisfied with their first-round victory. As interim head coach Dominique Ducharme said following their hard-fought seven-game series against the Leafs: “We want more. After tonight, you need to turn the page, take all the good that made us have success and bring that to the next one. It’s not a time to celebrate for a few days. We enjoy it tonight and we’ll be preparing tomorrow.”
Nevertheless, after having failed to move past the first round since 2015, the Canadiens, who came oh, so close to failing to make the playoffs in four of five seasons last year, all of a sudden are seemingly gaining traction towards hockey’s ultimate prize. With one year left on Marc Bergevin’s contract, the Canadiens general manager has at the very least opened the door for the team to potentially contend before his deal expires.
In other words, following an extremely productive offseason in 2020, Bergevin has laid the groundwork for further progress and quite possibly an extension. However, as Ducharme alluded to, the Canadiens can’t afford to get complacent. The sentiment extends to management with the Habs far from being a perfect team.
Canadiens Built for Playoffs or Just Round 1?
Sure, according to analysts, the Canadiens were built for the playoffs. However, there are a few caveats. Firstly, they have to make them, and the Canadiens barely did, winning fewer games than the fifth-place Calgary Flames. The Canadiens undeniably faced a great deal of adversity in the form of a condensed scheduled down the stretch (25 games in 43 days). However, that’s not an excuse for the simple reason the Habs, with exception to a 5-0-2 start on the strength of which they made the playoffs, had been mediocre the rest of the way, even before the condensed schedule started.
Secondly, the Canadiens, who notched just 14 goals in seven games against the Leafs, continue to struggle to score in the playoffs on a macro level. While Carey Price was the difference in Round 1, he shouldn’t be expected to consistently stand on his head like he has, throughout an entire playoff run. It’s simply not sustainable. Case in point, Price has stolen entire series before, but hasn’t so much as won a game past Round 2 in his career. Anyone expecting that to change, with Price now 33 going on 34, is kind of putting all their eggs in one wicker basket set ablaze. They’re either falling to the ground or cooking before they do.
Needless to say, as Bergevin should well know by now the Habs need more offense one way or another. A greater transition game from the back end is arguably the preferable way to go, with it having been an issue going on four years, since Andrei Markov left.
So, Bergevin can’t afford to rest on his laurels. Granted, Bergevin’s undeniably safe for now. He may even negotiate an extension before his contract expires, thereby effectively eliminating any and all pressure to ice a contender by the end of next season. However, the calls for his job have been growing louder and louder in the recent past. As great as it is that the Canadiens built on last season’s improbable first-round exit, no one at this point is going to be happy if they fail to keep the progression going next season. At least no one should be happy. So, the fans shouldn’t rest on their laurels either.
Bergevin Has Work Cut Out for Him
There are always exceptions. Knock on wood, if the Canadiens somehow manage to first beat the Jets and then magically go all the way this season, they can miss the playoffs for the next decade and Bergevin will still probably have a job in the organization as long as he wants one. More to the point, widespread fan and media acceptance would be in the cards as well. Possibly even a statue.
However, in the here (reality) and now (the start of Round 2), as impressive as it was for the Canadiens to upset the Leafs, preventing them from reaching the second round for the first time since 2004, all the victory over the Leafs did was redeem the Habs for the mediocrity they displayed during the regular season.
Therein lies the rub. If failure to move past Round 1 would have been a fireable offense for Bergevin to his critics, can just barely advancing only to get eliminated in Round 2 be considered an accomplishment? Yes, even if only for the simple reason that it’s the bare minimum fans should have reasonably expected. The fact that it was an upset over a widely favored team in the top-seeded Leafs is irrelevant, because, after nine years of Bergevin on the job, there’s no good reason why the Habs shouldn’t have been the top seeds instead.
Regardless, considering where this team has finished in the recent past, it’s an acceptable end to the season if the road stops here. Any expectations to the contrary are simply unrealistic. Any lower expectations for next season are an insult to the team’s fans who ultimately just lived through the first, first-round series victory in six years, however fun it was to watch. With that in mind, anything more this season is simply gravy.
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.