There he stood on the sidelines, nattily dressed and neatly combed. The stoic, wounded General, expressionless as they handed him the mic to introduce himself to the adoring faithful. But the people on their feet in the crowd would have none of his stone-faced professionalism. The volume of their cheering swelled in great undulating waves, washing over the quiet man whose absence on the ice is sorely felt by teammates and fans alike. As the blanket of sound enveloped him, the mask cracked and his reluctant smile blossomed into a beaming acknowledgement that Andrei Markov has become a beloved son of Montreal. That was my favourite moment of the season so far...the one that made me glow...in a six-game stretch that's already featured too many explanations and too few points. It was a moment of what might be, unapologetically emotional and warm. The people in the stands offered their support and their hearts to the man on the big screen, and he accepted with the particular pleasure born of true appreciation.
There could be so many more of these moments, if the players on the ice can only get it together. The fans are standing there with their hopes and their hearts in their hands, offering this team the best support and most ardent devotion known in hockey. There are some encouraging signs the players will end up deserving that offering, but those signs must be seeds of something that will take root and flourish. Otherwise, they'll be just tiny grains of pleasure in a barren field of futility.
Among the seeds of strength I've seen so far are improved play on the PK, more involvement by Andrei Kostitsyn and the elevated defensive play of Josh Gorges and Roman Hamrlik in the absence of Markov. I like what Mike Cammalleri is saying too. He's not making excuses or panicking for failing to score in six games, and he makes you believe him when he calmly says he will score many, many goals as a Hab. Paul Mara is emerging as quietly reliable in his own end. And best of all is the resurgence of Tomas Plekanec. If Gainey were smart, he'd sign Pleks to an extension NOW. More on that later, but I can promise letting him go into the summer without a contract will be a huge mistake.
On the flip side, I really don't like Scott Gomez. I see a guy with a lot of swagger and very little to back it up so far. He's being roundly outplayed by Plekanec, and the sardonic grin and cheeky comments while putting up few points remind me of a more expensive Chris Higgins. Hal Gill's not doing anything for me, either. He's obviously being overused because of the injuries on D, but boy, is he ever slow! And he doesn't do much with that giant frame of his. Latendresse and Lapierre seem to have lost the uncanny chemistry they had last year, perhaps because the latter played over his head and produced a career season he's not able to match again.
The point is, there are good things, but there's a great deal of work to be done before this team can be considered a playoff team. Right now, things can go either way and there are some really big obstacles to overcome. I think the team has the character to do it. Whether it has the ability is another issue.
Maybe the best we can hope for this year is a collection of shining, outstanding moments. Whether the team can build on them and turn moments into games or not, we should recognize them and smile when we can. It beats crying.