Well, a few of the questions we had this time yesterday have been answered. We know the Habs can pick up their game when it matters. They played a fine game and controlled the majority of the play, despite some hot goaltending by Giguere. We know how important good goaltending is to this team, because we saw its opposite in Halak's performance against the leafs. Watching him struggle like he did last night underlined how great he's been this season. The Habs should have won that game, and would have if Halak had been even close to his usual standard of play. We also know they have finally managed to snag the elusive point to qualify for the post season.
A lot of people will be critical of how the Habs got in, but the fact is, making it is an achievement, no matter how it happened. The very fact that it's on the heels of three losses to non-playoff teams underlines the extent of that achievement. The Islanders, Hurricanes and leafs won't be in this year; the Isles because their young team is still building, the 'Canes because their best players were injured so much and the leafs because they're a mess. Yet, all three teams can win, on any given night. They just couldn't overcome their weaknesses often enough. The Canadiens did.
For every loss to a non-playoff team, there has been a dramatic OT victory over a team like the Caps or the Pens. For every night the goaltending gave up a couple of softies to the leafs, there's been a solid shutout of a good team like the Sabres. For every time they can't muster up a goal, there's been a hat trick that sends the fans home deliriously happy. The Habs might not be the best of the playoff teams, but they ARE a playoff team, and that's something to be proud of. As Bob Gainey pointed out last year, only eight teams of fifteen in the conference make it in, and of those eight, three are guaranteed by virtue of being first place in their divisions. If a team doesn't take the division, that means there are only five playoff spots left for twelve teams. Being one of those five is an achievement.
The Canadiens had to jump many hurdles this year. The injuries were devastating. The Laraque saga, the Sergei Kostitsyn defection, the Gainey resignation and the year-long goalie controversy caused unneeded distractions. The very idea of throwing ten new players and a new coach into the room and expecting them to become a team in time to make the playoffs was hoping for a lot.
So now what? Should we be satisfied that our team has overcome the odds and become one of the five-out-of-twelve invited to the big party? I'm not. As a Habs fan, I want more. It's cliche, but the playoffs are really a fresh start. The Canadiens have shown us flashes of what makes a winner. They've got the goaltending, they've shown some heart and determination and they've also shown they know how to score when everything's working.
I know getting out of the first round against any of the possible opponents will be tough. Jaro Halak should start the first game, but if he doesn't play any better than he did against the leafs last night, he shouldn't keep the net, despite his strong play all year. Jacques Martin's going to have to make nice with Sergei Kostitsyn and Ryan O'Byrne. The playoffs aren't a time for holding grudges or punishing players. Kostitsyn has the ability to break open a tight game that a player like Max Lapierre doesn't. O'Byrne makes the occasional mistake, but he's young and fresher than tired vets like Hamrlik and Spacek. He's also one of the only hitters on the Canadiens D, and you can't bench that during the playoffs. I have no worries about Gomez and Gionta coming through in the post-season. They're proven winners. But Cammalleri, Plekanec, Pouliot and Andrei Kostitsyn will have to step up their games too. It's a lot to ask, but so was their achieving a playoff spot to begin with.
Yesterday some of our questions were answered. Today the others, like where the Habs will ultimately finish and who they'll face in the first round will become clear. Some, like whether this team has enough in the tank to make a series of it, we won't know until mid-week. For now, I'm content to wait and see and enjoy the fact that the mission with which they started the season...to be here, now...has been accomplished.