Yesterday I said the Florida game would be a definitive one for the Canadiens. Given the pressure to move up in the standings, the two days of rest, the injuries to the opponent and the momentum coming off their best two games of the season, all the variables were in place for the Habs to come out with a win. That meant the usual lame excuses for losing would not apply. That game was one the Canadiens had to win, for the playoffs but also for themselves. The question facing them was: "Can we not only make the playoffs, but prove to ourselves that we can compete in the post-season if we do make it?"
The answer came back with depressing surety: No.
Murray Wilson on CJAD put it best when he said the Habs were doing too much reaching in that game. That exactly described what I saw. Instead of skating for the puck, the Habs were stopping a stride or two short and just reaching out for it with their sticks. And, as anyone with even high school physics will tell you, when an object like a body is applying force against an object with less mass, like a stick, the heavier object is going to win that battle. That's what the Panthers did. They went into the corners and onto the boards leading with their bodies. The Habs lead with their sticks. The bodies won.
So, what does that tell us about the Habs' chances of making the playoffs? Not much. They're still in a dogfight with five or six other teams for a seventh or eighth seed. They might make it. That game, however, tells us something about the Habs' vision of themselves as a team. A good team, when it really needs to win a game, believes it will win. It comes out skating, hitting and competing. It might not win every time, but it gives a damn good showing in a loss. The Canadiens don't see themselves as a good team. Last night they were passive, slow and, most revealing, took fewer than twenty shots. In the NHL, if a team doesn't believe in itself, it has no chance.
I think the Canadiens have enough talent to be competitive. The defence isn't the best in the league, but with Andrei Markov bringing all-star skill, and veteran experience in Hamrlik and Spacek, it's not the worst. The goaltending is stellar. The special teams are excellent, and the top two lines can score when everyone's healthy. That's a better package than a lot of teams have. But no matter how talented a team is, it won't win when it matters if it doesn't believe it will.
Listening to the bewildered post-game comments from the players who couldn't explain why they failed to play better last night, that's the message I got. They say they didn't play with confidence, but what they mean is this is a team that doesn't believe in itself. If it doesn't have that vital winning mindset, its talent will only be enough to keep it at an average performance level.
So, this will be an average team, with average chances of making the playoffs, and an average showing if it does manage to make it into the top eight. Its GM will walk to the podium in Los Angeles this June and call the name of an average draft pick. It will be another average year for a franchise that has forgotten it used to believe in winning.
If the difference between winning and being average is believing, well, belief can be instilled. A captain or a coach can bring the passion of belief to a room and make it contagious. But the Habs have no captain, and can anyone picture Jacques Martin breathing the fire of life into this team? Me neither.
To paraphrase Forrest Gump's mother, average is as average does. The Canadiens do average really well. The disappointment for us is that we believe in them more than they do themselves. That answers a lot of our questions about the team this year.