Forget the leafs. The Ottawa Senators are the Habs' worst nightmare. Public enemy number one. The fly in their ointment. The rain on their parade. The kryptonite to their Superman. The team to whom a loss makes a fan's stomach roll and fists clench with futile anger. This season for the Canadiens has been a series of hurdles conquered. Martin Brodeur? Check. New York Rangers? Check. Christmas road trip? Check. The team has managed to vanquish every obstacle that's blocked their path for the last several seasons. All except Ottawa.
There was Martin Gerber last night, shutting out the Habs while looking like he was taking a light practice between courses at a Sunday picnic. Jason Spezza, laughing at the Canadiens while he casually flicked powerplay pucks past Carey Price. Anton Volchenkov, blocking more shots than Gerber. Chris Phillips, tying up Kovalev as though the big man were the captain of the Japanese women's national team. There was the whole bloody Sens team clogging up the neutral zone, trapping and disrupting the speed and smooth passing on which the Canadiens make their living. Frustration is just the most easily available word that comes to mind when describing the latest arse-kicking handed down by Ottawa.
This arse-kicking is particularly sobering because it appeared from the first minute of the game that the Sens were playing playoff hockey. They'd been sitting fifth for a couple of weeks, and decided it was time for them to make a statement and reassert their dominance in the east. They came out skating, hitting, playing strong team defence and taking advantage of their powerplay opportunities. And the Canadiens couldn't handle it.
The worst part is, I don't think they didn't try, or didn't play well. They did try. They tried and were frustrated at every turn. That's scary when every team that makes the playoffs is capable of playing that shut-down style of hockey. Hell, the Habs did it themselves to New Jersey on Tuesday. But the Canadiens don't have an answer when they're on the receiving end. The obvious solution in such situations is to shift toward playing a more physical game...getting guys into the crease for rebounds, taking lots of shots, hitting everything that moves and winning battles on the boards. The Canadiens, though, don't seem to have the ability to play that game. In situations like that, when a team's finesse players are stymied, the grinders and checkers have to step up. The Habs' guys didn't. And I think it's simply because they can't. The team's bottom six forwards aren't good enough to grind a strong team down, and they're not consistent enough as offensive threats to take the heat off the first two lines.
Stepping away from the sour-tasting, humiliating residue of loss for a moment, we can see that practically, losing to Ottawa isn't the end of the world. In fact, most pundits would say the Habs are supposed to lose to the Sens because Ottawa' s the better team. The Canadiens have met and exceeded so many developmental milestones this season it's easy to forget how young they are and how much better they're still going to get. Ottawa's time is now. They won't get any stronger, while the Habs can almost compete already...even with the obvious improvements Bob Gainey still needs to make.
But the promise of future dominance is cold comfort when you're somebody's bitch right now. If nothing else, the Habs treatment at the hands of the Sens this year should teach us not to mock Bruins fans too much. And watching Spezza et.al totally own our team forces us to realize that our dreams of going deep this year, ahead of schedule, might depend on some other team doing Montreal a big favour and upsetting Ottawa. Because if last night's game is any indication, a meeting between those two in the playoffs won't be pretty if you're looking at it through Habs-coloured glasses.
There are two more chances to solve the Senators before the playoffs. The Habs have done so much and come so far this year, it might be asking too much for them to beat a team with vastly more experience at year-end hockey. But if Fate and the hockey gods are really smiling on Montreal, as it seems at time this year they are, they might still find a way to defy the odds and knock down their nemesis.
If not, I wonder if maple syrup might improve the flavour of humble pie?