The NHL season that's just been put on ice isn't cold yet, but the jokes are already rolling in about the Habs' chances against the Caps. One leaf fan wanted to know how many goals it's possible for Ovechkin to score in four games, then wondered if he might need a calculator to add them up. Another one figures if the game starts at 7:00 on Thursday, the Habs will be down two by 7:15. Yeah. Okay. We get it. It's a tough matchup. On paper, there's no way the Habs should have a chance.
Just imagine it. The top team in the league, with 121 points and a winning percentage of over .700%. The roster includes the league's most dynamic goalscorer and its most offensively gifted defenceman. The team destroyed all comers, leading the league on the powerplay with a success rate of greater than 25%. It's scored more than 300 goals and has ten guys with more than twenty apiece. In comparison, our Habs' leading goal scorer is barely 5'7" and didn't hit forty. The overall points leader barely cracked seventy. They're second in the league on the powerplay, but not nearly as impressive as the top team. There's some skill up front, but nothing remotely like the firepower the other guys can muster. The only thing they've really got going for them is a young goalie who's capable of stealing games.
The comparison doesn't look good for the Canadiens, does it? The only catch is, the teams I'm describing are the 1970-71 Boston Bruins and their first-round playoff opponent Montreal Canadiens. The Canadiens won that series in seven games and dumped the team everyone thought was a shoo-in Cup winner. On paper, there's no way the likes of 76-goal-man Phil Esposito or Bobby Orr, with his 139 points and plus-124, should have lost that series to the bottom-seed team. The Canadiens should never have had a chance against the defending Stanley Cup champions, with their .776% winning percentage...on paper. The Bruins were a well-oiled powerhouse. The Habs were a mishmash of aging vets and unproven kids with no real identity.
Both today's Habs and this year's powerful Caps are less impressive stats-wise than those 1971 opponents, which puts them on approximately even footing, historically speaking. It just goes to prove when it comes to the playoffs and the Habs, nothing's impossible. Just ask the 2002 and 2004 Bruins how it felt to be a dominant number-one seed facing the eighth-place Canadiens.
That's not to say this task is an easy one for the Canadiens. Those 1971 Habs not only got timely goalscoring from some guys who went on to become Hall-of-Famers, but they had the brilliant Ken Dryden robbing the Bruins blind in net. In those two more recent Bruins series I mentioned, they had Jose Theodore playing the Dryden role and the passionate leadership of Saku Koivu. This year's team will need nothing less than stellar, inspired goaltending from one or both of Price and Halak. It will need big goals from little guys and heroic D from the seven men charged with defending their own zone.
Most importantly, it will need a leader. Someone will have to take his teammates by the collective throat and make them believe they can win. Jean Beliveau did it in '71. Koivu got the job done in '02 and '04. Maybe it's Brian Gionta or Hal Gill or Andrei Markov this time around, but if there isn't a leader that gets them all on the same page, they're lost. I take hope in the knowledge that a lot of these men have won the Cup before, and they know what needs to be done. Gill, Gionta, Gomez and Moen can lead the kids through the playoff minefield.
The good news is the Habs have played Washington pretty well this year. The Caps are a great team and an offensive juggernaut, but they're not without weaknesses. Lots of you will say Theodore is a weak link, but I disagree. Theo has almost always played a very good first round in the playoffs, only stinking it up in the second. He's very hot since the Olympic break, so I don't think he'll be the sieve people are hoping for. I think the biggest weakness the Caps have is the same as the Habs': they fall prey to an aggressive offence. This may sound like a dumb theory, but I think the Caps are so used to having the puck all the time, they don't quite know what to do when the skate's on the other foot. In the game the Habs won 6-5 in OT against them, that's the pattern I saw. When the Caps had the puck, they were extremely dangerous, but when the Habs used their speed to press the Washington D, they ran around like chickens.
If the Habs are lucky enough to find the leadership and the goaltending they need, they can win. They need to be fast, make sure their passes are crisp and giveaways are limited. If they're attacking aggressively, they have a chance. In other words, if they ignore their coach and play their own game, they'll be competitive.
This time next week, the leafs and Bruins fans may very well be cracking jokes at our team's expense. But history shows the Canadiens can often find a way to make them choke on their jests. Let's hope this is another one of *those* years!