Another sleepless night for me last night, tossing around, stomach in knots, vascillating between vain hope, frustration and deep, deep regret. In the end, my Habs-loving heart is hemmorraging its tri-coloured lifesblood all over another wasted playoff year. Yeah, yeah...I know...all you Pollyannas out there will say it's not over yet and they can still come back and win the next three. Some of you even say you truly believe that. You'll cite the Boston comeback in 2004 as an example. But, I remember that series too. There was a feeling back then that things were going to go the Habs' way. The hot goaltending, the timely goals, the lucky bounces. Unless things change dramatically in the next (final) game in Montreal, I see no reason why a comeback should be possible this time. There's absolutely nothing going in the Habs' favour. The second Flyers' goal last night was the perfect microcosm of the series. The Canadiens hit post after post, only to have the puck deflect harmlessly away. The Flyers hit a post, and the puck shoots straight out onto a rushing player's stick for a perfect rebound goal. You just have to shake your head and cry.
The Canadiens have tried...boy, have they tried! We can pick their play apart all we want, but the fact remains, they've outshot and outhit the Flyers in every game. They've had chance after chance and hit post after post when Biron wasn't robbing them blind. Sure, they could get more bodies in front of Biron...but we know our team isn't that kind of team. They don't have the personel to change styles just like that. They're a speed, finesse team. It's how they're built and how they thrived all season long. They're dominating play using that style and should be at least tied, if not ahead in this series. I'm not going to crap on them now for not being able to suddenly assume a different identity and become a net-crashing physical team. Saku Koivu and Tomas Plekanec are trying their damnedest to do that, and have managed to scrounge up a couple of goals that way. But it doesn't come naturally and it's tough for a couple of little guys to maintain that style. Guillaume Latendresse is a big guy who could play that way if he so chose, but he thinks he's a finesse guy. We know that, and expecting him to change overnight is unrealistic. It's like expecting Chris Higgins to suddenly discover serious offensive talent. He finds himself in great scoring position all the time because he hustles like a madman, but he's never scored more than 25-or-so goals in a season in his life, at any level. Hoping he'll suddenly develop the hands of a forty-goal man is a vain hope, if there ever was one.
In retrospect, maybe Carbonneau should have let Michael Ryder play. He's been known to come up big in important games in the past. Then again, this hasn't been Ryder's year, and maybe he'd have done no more than Latendresse has been able to do. Maybe the coaching staff should have tried to tinker with the powerplay. Mark Streit has been struggling, and Kovalev has been double-teamed on the right boards. The bread-and-butter cross-ice pass is getting blocked and I suspect at least Markov and maybe Kovalev are playing hurt. But hindsight is pointless. The team has gone with the strengths that put it in first place in the east, surprising the hell out of everyone. That's all you can do. You go to war with your best weapons. When those weapons aren't working, of course you try to adjust. But there are limits to what a player can do, and how much he can change his natural style on the spur of the moment.
Maybe the ball's back in Bob Gainey's court now. He's seen what his team's strengths can be. He's also seen its weaknesses. I think no one believes the Canadiens are quite the team Gainey has in mind just yet. Most of us would even say they're ahead of schedule with their performance this season. I picture the team in two years, when guys like Max Pacioretty and Ryan White...both sizeable, gritty forwards with scoring ability...provide what this year's squad is missing. When Carey Price is 22 and has three years of playoff experience behind him. When Pavel Valentenko and Ryan O'Byrne have NHL experience on defence, providing hard hitting and solid play in their own zone. When Kyle Chipchura has learned how to shut down the opposition's top lines effectively. I have hope that what the Habs don't have in their own system now can be induced to join the team through free agency, now that the future looks promising.
I know it's cold comfort to still be looking to the future after such a wonderful season, and after our hopes for a strong playoff climbed so high. But, sometimes your best effort doesn't win. Sometimes the other team has the intangibles... the opportunism, the luck, the momentum...in its favour. Facing reality, the Canadiens will not advance further this playoff year. They won't get a chance to play mighty Pittsburgh for a ticket to the finals. But remember Pittsburgh last year...bowing out in five first-round games to Ottawa. A year can change many things. I have to put this season to rest now and hope that next year will be different. For the first time in many seasons, I have reason to believe it really will be different...and better.
On Saturday night, I will watch what will very likely be the Canadiens' last game of the season. I'll hope like hell they can pull off the miracle, but if they don't, I'm not going to pick them apart for it. It's going to be a very long, hockey-less summer, so I'm going to enjoy one last glimpse of the team that gave me so much fun and excitement this season. When it's over, if the Habs are done for the season, I'll be sad and frustrated and lose a night's sleep reliving it all. But I'll wake up on Sunday with hope that there will be another chance for these players to come back next year and climb a little higher.
That all said, getting eliminated is a trying, emotional experience. I expect I'll probably be venting a good bit before it's over. But, in this moment of calm, I really believe things will get better next year. I have to. I just hope the team can finally win something before I bleed out.