Monday, March 31, 2008


Well, we knew it had to happen sometime. I've always believed everything in hockey balances out. A team that dominates an entire game and should beat Atlanta, loses in a shootout. Months later, that same team plays a lacklustre game in Buffalo and comes back to score two late goals and win in OT. The team that blows a 3-0 lead to the Rangers comes back next game and makes a miracle comeback from a 5-0 deficit against those same Rangers. A lousy penalty call that leads to a goal against is forgiven by a PP goal on an equally questionable call. Karma. So, is anyone really surprised that the Canadiens' lucky star when it comes to injuries has fallen? Deep down, we knew it was coming. Things were too smooth...too cushy. Guy Carbonneau was too defensive about explaining how his team deserved to be healthy because they worked hard to be that way. We knew it couldn't last. So did Carbonneau. So did the players...those most superstitious of athletes.

Now, here we are facing the Senators for the division title without the team's two most punishing defensemen in Mike Komisarek and Francis Bouillon. PP quarterback Mark Streit is limping and probably only playing because the team can't afford to play Mathieu Dandenault on defence while Patrice Brisebois is already in the lineup. The defence in that case would be softer than a flock of fluffy chicks. And, most rattling to team morale, Captain K is gone for the season, and possibly (likely?) for at least part of the playoffs. It's a blow to the confidence at a time when confidence is everything.

If the regular season is a crucible that fires and hardens a bunch of hockey players into a team that can compete for the Stanley Cup, fate has just turned up the heat on the Canadiens. This is the last in a series of tests the team must pass before it knows it has what it takes to win. So far, this group has proven they can survive the loss of important players like Sheldon Souray and still keep their top-ranked PP. They've proven they can score goals...lots of them. They've shown third and fourth-year players can raise their games and become team leaders. They've learned how to take a lead, and how to hold one...and how to come back when they're down. They've solved the inconsistency problem they had last year. Now they have to learn how to deal with adversity, and how to patch holes with players in roles they don't normally fill.

If they can do it...pull off three convincing efforts, even if they don't result in wins...I'll believe they have the mental fibre to go deep into the playoffs. I think Koivu's loss will be keenly felt, not only because he pushes his game higher when it really counts, but because of what he represents to the team and its morale.

But this team has to realize Koivu won't be there forever. In fact, he likely won't be there in three to five years' time, as most of the players Bob Gainey has assembled to fight for future Cups are just coming into their own. Someone else is going to have to do for the team what Koivu does now. Other players will have to step up their games when it really counts. Others will have to be the emotional touchstones for their teammates. If Alex Kovalev, Tomas Plekanec, Chris Higgins and Mike Komisarek are going to be champions in Montreal, they are going to have to earn it. They have three games left to come to terms with what they must do, and decide if they're willing and able to do it. I believe they can. Now we have to see if they believe it.

As they say, hard work pays off. It's karma.

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