Habs’ Playoff Hopes All But Dashed

What a difference a week or two can make, especially for teams on the bubble. In the absence of Carey Price – whose latest injury was declared a state secret – and stud defenceman Shea Weber, the Habs rode the red-hot goaltending of rookie Charlie Lindgren right out the crater they’d dug for themselves, stringing together five wins and clawing their way back into the playoff picture. For now, at least, the prospect of a lost season well before the New Year has dimmed, but the margin for error remains extremely slim. Another losing skid, and the knives will be out for Marc Bergevin, and Geoff Molson, for the well-being of the team, the city and the province, will have no choice but to enact the necessary sacrifice to appease the hockey gods.

The Leafs, meanwhile, have cooled off after a torrid start, while in Tampa, Lighting’ GM Steve Yzerman and assistant Julien Brisebois – touted by many as the next Canadiens’ GM before Geoff Molson opted in favour of Marc Bergevin – have assembled a championship-calibre roster on the strength of a brilliant draft record.

No NHL team has plucked more diamonds from the rough on draft day than Tampa. The incomparable Nikita Kucherov was a late second-round pick, while Alex Killorn and Rookie-of-the-Year candidate Brayden Point were third-round picks; Ondrej Palat, incredibly, was taken in Round 7 with the 208th pick (that’s just before the cognoscenti pack it in for another year). Tyler Johnson? Undrafted. Signed by Yzerman in 2011.

If you’re a longtime Habs fan, it’s enough to make you weep.

In the brave new age of parity under the cap, Habs fans old enough to remember the sixties and seventies have learned to live with diminished expectations; the dynasties of old, we’ve grudgingly accepted, are a vanishing breed. Still, Original Six franchises face added pressure to remain competitive and retool on the fly, rather than risk losing fans to a painful rebuild—an unlikely scenario in Montreal, where hockey’s the only game in town and players are accorded a reverence befitting saints (it’s not for nothing the Hall of Fame is known in French as the Temple de la renommée). The objective is to make the playoffs, and then, as they say, tout est possible!

But not even the great Carey Price has been able to carry our floundering franchise past the second round. Au contraire: The Habs, during the Price era, have shown that all-world goaltending is no guarantee there’ll be hockey at the height of mosquito season in Quebec.

Yet, year after year the organization pledges undying faith in this team’s core players, none more than Captain Max Pacioretty. Let me be the latest to say that the Canadiens will never win a Stanley Cup with Max Pacioretty as their captain. Sure, he’ll get you to the post-season, but when the playoff intensity ratchets up and penalties are rarer than hens’ teeth, when success calls for a willingness to accept cruel and unusual punishment and give blood for the good of the team, chances are you’ll find Max Pacioretty somewhere out on the perimeter, where the coast is clear and the living is easy.

Memo to Geoff Molson: As a fan and a seasoned armchair GM, I’d swap the status quo for a shot at a brighter future in the time it takes to say “Jordie Benn is having a breakout season.” Why, I’d watch a full season of Stars on Ice and learn to crochet just to get within cross-checking distance of the Conference Final.

The Canadiens, pro sports winningest franchise, are a proud organization steeped in a rich history—a fact that players are reminded of at every conceivable opportunity (no pressure!). To kick off the season, fans, too, are treated to a solemn torch-bearing ceremony on a scale matched only by the Olympics. All that winning breeds a certain swagger, of course, and when the Habs win, we, the legion of loyal fans, bask in reflected glory. Another Stanley Cup would all but lift us onto a completely different plane beyond the earthly pale.

But success has also caused complacency to creep in—we’re among the most storied franchises in professional sports, what’s to change!

As longtime Intel CEO Andrew Grove wrote: “Success breeds complacency and complacency breeds failure.”

He could have been talking about your Montreal Canadiens.

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