One of the great cliches in hockey is anything can happen in the playoffs. You can't win it if you're not in it. Unfortunately, "anything" for the Montreal Canadiens does not likely include a miraculous victory in a seven-game series over the New Jersey Devils.
The Habs have beaten better teams this year. They've worked hard, and they've shown heart most of the time. They've persevered through terrible injury problems and they've gotten some fine goaltending. They have the skilled players who can put up points regularly. It's an entirely different team than it was last year. When it comes to the Devils, however, it doesn't matter. The Devils keep beating the Habs, year in, year out, and I have a hard time picturing the habit of years changing in time for Montreal to pull off a playoff victory over those guys. So, if we're going to risk our happiness on the assumption the Habs are even going to make the playoffs, we've got to hope we don't see the Devils in the first round.
Last night's game was a typical one between these two teams. In a slight variation from the usual, the Habs came out flying and kept the puck in the Devils' end for more than two minutes. That's where things returned to normal in Canadiens/Devils world. Despite the intense pressure off the top, the Habs failed to put one past Brodeur and the game settled into the typical Jersey pattern of defend-and-wait. They protected their own end and pounced on any break-down in the Canadiens' D. That came last night when the Habs' PK failed to live up to its eleventh-overall ranking.
On the positive side of the ledger for the Canadiens, the Plekanec line is clicking since Cammalleri's return. Cammalleri is opening up space for Andrei Kostitsyn and the latter's taking advantage of it. Even though Plekanec is playing hurt, he's still putting up points as well. The Gomez line is still working hard and getting chances, even though Pouliot's not the dominating force he was in his first little while as a Hab. In the net, Halak made some game-savers and the goals he allowed weren't bad ones. In terms of overall effort, the Habs didn't give up when down by a couple. Their main problem was, they needed to play like they did in the first two minutes of the game for the entire sixty if they hoped to beat the Devils, and no team can sustain that level of intensity for a whole game.
On the negative side, the power play has died. Toes up, pushing daisies, bought the farm, deceased. It is an ex-power play. The Habs cannot win close games like the one last night when the opponent takes advantage of its man advantages and they do not. Bergeron' return hasn't helped one iota and his presence on the fourth line isn't helping there either. Maybe he'll start getting some shots through in the next couple of games; after all, he's only been back for a week so his timing's going to be off a bit. If he doesn't though, the Canadiens have to find a way to fix this major problem before the playoffs. They won't last long with a dead PP, if they make it at all without help. I hate to say "bring up Subban," which is the Habs-fan plea du jour, but in this case, it might be helpful. Not only does the kid bring great energy, he also can fire bombs from the point.
Hamrlik's play is concerning as well. The team needs him to eat twenty-plus minutes a game and be a dependable presence on the back end. Since the Olympic break, he hasn't been as solid as he can be. He's making ill-advised clearing attempts and weak first passes. But worse than that, he's playing a soft game. He's not hitting and he's doing a lot more watching the puck than clearing opponents out of the crease. If he's not contributing to the offence, he needs to play a smarter, more physical game.
Also on the poor side of the account of last night, Sergei Kostitsyn played a solid game. Until the last couple of minutes, that is. When the Habs were pushing for the tying goal, Kostitsyn was going for the puck in the Devils' zone. He saw the defenceman coming out of the corner of his eye, and he bailed on the play to avoid a hit. It was unforgiveable, and the exact kind of thing that makes the difference between playoff winners and losers. I can't stand players who quit.
Worse than the loss itself, however, is the loss of Glen Metropolit. Metro is the kind of heart and soul player a team needs to succeed in the playoffs. He also solidifies a fourth line that's saddled with the largely ineffectual Bergeron and scoring-handicapped Tom Pyatt. Metro has good hands and can contribute important goals from the bottom six, which you need when your top lines are getting checked into the ice. If early reports that he's got a separated shoulder are true, then he's probably done for the year. It's too bad, because a team can't win much without help from its third and fourth lines. If Maxim Lapierre doesn't pick it up dramatically...which I'm not expecting...then Metro's loss is going to hurt.
In the end, I wasn't expecting a win last night. And I wouldn't expect one if the two teams meet in the playoffs. Anything can happen in the playoffs; that's true. But the Devils versus the Habs is the exception that proves the rule. There's only one thing that happens between those two teams, and it's not good for us.