Whoa...getting a little dizzy. The air's a bit thin up here, on the summit of Mount Eastern Conference. I have to hold onto the flag the Habs have planted right in the middle of it to make the world stop spinning.
Nineteen years. Nineteen years, including eliminations, playoff misses, disappointments and shame since Habs fans could look at the conference standings on the last day and say, "We're number one!" (The '93 Cup helped ease the pain, but it *is* very nice to have something to show for 82 games of toil once again.)
The season's over and there are three excruciating days to wait before the playoffs open for the Habs. So, there's no better time to look back at the climb up the mountain and remember our favourite milestones. Here are my top ten games of significance...the games that have made the Habs the team they are today:
10. October 10...the Arrival. Carey Price's first NHL game, against Pittsburgh. He played a solid game, got the win, starting on the same date and against the same team as Ken Dryden and Patrick Roy before him. If he's going to become a legend, that was a fitting start, serving notice to the league that he's for real.
9. October 27...the Shootout. Nine rounds of shootout agony versus Pittsburgh. Watching Crosby, Malkin, Gonchar and company fire away at Price and him stoning every one of them. Then Andrei Markov, with the slick move and the winner just when we couldn't take it anymore. That one showed us what a confident Price can do under pressure, and it is good.
8. November 1...Team Toughness. In a 5-2 win over Philly, the Habs proved that their lack of a goon wouldn't slow them down. Philly hit, and the Habs hit back. Philly dropped the gloves and so did the Canadiens. In a time when the Flyers were the talk of the league for having appeared to resurrect the Broad Street Bullies, the Habs weren't afraid and they stuck it to them.
7. December 27 and December 28...the Road Trip. With memories of last year and the team's post-Christmas collapse still haunting the team, they embarked on the same holiday road trip again this season. This time, they left no doubt this is a different team with a different outlook. Result? Back-to-back wins, 5-2 over Tampa and 5-1 over Jacques Martin's stifling Lightning...the only team with a winning record against Montreal.
6. January 24...the Comeback, Part One. Facing the traditional Curse of Brodeur, with the understanding that the Jersey goalie owns them, the Habs fought back from 2-0 and 3-1 deficits, with three unanswered goals in the third to vanquish the wretched Marty IN New Jersey. The win showed the boys they have heart, they're never out of a game if they keep working at it, and that they're no longer Brodeur's Bitch. The mental impact of that realization can be measured by the fact that they've not lost to Jersey again since.
5. February 3...the Choke. Up 3-0 against the Rangers, the Habs proceeded to allow five straight goals to blow the lead and the game. It was a stunning collapse and taught the team no lead is safe if you let up for an entire period. The lesson has been learned well.
4. March 1...the Defence. Beating New Jersey 2-1, the Habs prove they don't have to score four goals to win a game. They overcame their tendency to give up late tying goals and showed themselves and the league that they can play tough, defensive hockey with the best of them and prevail.
3. March 24...the Clinch. Facing an Ottawa team that had owned them all year long, the Canadiens dominated them in their own building, powering to a 7-1 lead before forgetting to play the third. Still, clinching a playoff spot with a 7-5 victory over an archrival went a long way toward healing the wounds left from last year's disasterous finale.
2. April 1, 3 and 5...the Exclamation Point. Coming down the stretch, needing to keep pace with a hot Penguins team for a chance at the Conference title, and hoping to show themselves and their potential opponents that they're serious about making a splash in the post-season, the Habs resist the urge to let down after making the playoffs. They played three consecutive games as perfectly as a team can play, clinching the division with a shutout against Ottawa, eliminating the defending President's Trophy winning Sabres and completely dominating the Leafs. Those three games won them the East, and send them into the playoffs on a roll.
1. February 19...the Comeback, Part Two. You knew this one had to be the moment of the year. Down 5-0 to the Rangers, the Canadiens, borne on the emotion of the Bell Centre crowd, clawed back to win 6-5 in OT. It was the first time a Habs team had ever done that, and it proved to them that they're never out of it. It gave them confidence to have patience in their ability, and it taught them the value of home ice advantage. This was the game of the year, and the one that really showed what the team is made of.
So, there you go...those are the games I see as the ones that really created the team we're seeing now. The lessons learned are the ones that will make them competitive in the guts-and-glory season they're about to begin. And they're the ones that lifted us out of our seats and made us fall in love with this team over and over again. For that, we're grateful.
Now it's time to make other memories and climb other heights. I'm looking forward to the view from the top of Mount Stanley.