I wonder if Bob Gainey has allowed himself a small, secret smile at the way Josh Gorges is playing these days? Or whether Doug Wilson has stopped kicking himself yet. I wasn't sure how things would work out when Craig Rivet got traded to the Sharks for Gorges and the Sharks' first-round pick last year. I wasn't even sure how I felt about it. On one hand, Rivet was a lifetime Hab who'd given a lot of himself to the team. On the other, he was having a pretty rotten season and had betrayed the "A" on his sweater by getting angry and dividing loyalty in the room between himself and the coach when Carbonneau benched him for a game. I figured Rivet likely wouldn't be back when Markov and/or Souray were signed, and I'd hoped Gainey might get something in return for one of his free agents rather than let them all walk. That said, I thought it would be Souray bringing back a first-rounder and I was pretty shocked when it turned out to be Rivet instead.
So, Gorges showed up and promptly found himself a pressbox seat. He was okay in the seven games he played, but his name was grouped among those of Aebischer, Johnson and Murray as a guy most fans didn't mind dismissing from the roster without a backward glance. He went home and worked hard to keep in shape, showed up at training camp and again did okay. Still, he was a seventh defenceman at best, and some were surprised he didn't get a ticket to Hamilton back in October. The season started and most nights, Brisebois beat him out for a place on the team.
Then things turned. Brisebois got hurt. Dandenault and Streit proved to be better forwards than defencemen. Gorges got into a few games. One of my first memories of him this year was from an early game against Ottawa. He made an atrocious cross-ice pass which got picked off for a breakaway and a goal. He looked like he wanted to crawl into a hole and I'm sure he feared he'd never play again. But to Carbonneau's credit, he boosted the kid's morale and said those things could happen to anyone. Given the second chance, Gorges thrived, and I've not seen a careless error like that since.
Next, I remember an early game against Pittsburgh. Someone...Talbot, I think...flattened Saku Koivu. Chris Higgins was there, but didn't react. Next thing we knew, an angry Hab hurtled into the picture on the TV screen and smacked the guy who'd hit his captain. That was Josh Gorges. We learned then he'll come to a teammate's rescue, and he isn't afraid of anyone.
Other memories of Gorges are from the second half of the season...teaming up with Francis Bouillon to make a very solid third defence pairing for the Canadiens. Taking hit after hit and bouncing up to clear the puck every time, and throwing a few smacks himself. Making nice, crisp clearing passes and not panicking under pressure. Coming off the boards with the puck on his stick against bigger, stronger and sometimes multiple opponents. And my personal favourite, standing there beside his own net, refusing to fight a lumbering Flyers defenceman while pointing up the ice as Bouillon broke away and scored a backbreaking goal. Brilliant.
Then came the Komisarek injury. I know I wasn't alone in my dread about what would happen to the Canadiens' efforts to win the division and secure a playoff spot without the Komisaurus patrolling the blue line. Gorges has stepped up beautifully, playing huge minutes and looking as solid as concrete. The penalty kill, featuring Gorges, hasn't been better all year. He's out there for 5-on-3s and in the last minute of close games. He's become a rock for the Canadiens, and we fans are very, very lucky he was able to play beyond our humble expectations of him. Who knew the Habs had secured such a jewel in the Rivet trade this time last year? Well, aside from Bob Gainey, of course. And we haven't even talked about Max Pacioretty. The Rivet trade could be the best trade Gainey's ever made, including stealing Alex Kovalev for a second pick and Jozef Balej.
My fears of the Habs entering the playoffs with injuries on defence are not nearly as debilitating as they would have been if Josh Gorges hadn't been part of the team. I hope wherever Bob Gainey is tonight, he's smiling as he watches #26 help his team in its quest for first place.
At least just a little grin...even if it's on the inside.