Whatever else people will say about the Montreal Canadiens this year, nobody will deny they give their fans a great cardio workout. No matter what the lead they hold or the deficit they face, the Habs have turned the art of the one-goal game into a science.
The team lulled many fans, and likely the players too, into a false sense of security with the four-goal lead last night. Michael Cammalleri was out to prove something against his old team for choosing Bouwmeester over him, and his line with Plekanec and Lars Eller was flying. Alex Auld looked steady for the first little while, despite a couple of goal-post close calls. Andrei Kostitsyn continued to shoot puck, score goal. Everything was well in hand as the Habs scored goal after goal. Then the roof fell in.
Seemingly stunned by the unprecedented lead, the Canadiens began to get a little bit too fancy and take a few risks they don't normally take. Cute behind-the-back passes and soft chips out of the zone meant turnovers mounted and the Flames began to pressure the Habs' zone. When that happened, the depleted D started running around and making panicky clearing attempts. Twice, the Flames scored while Habs defencemen were diving at the puck and taking themselves out of position while leaving the men they were supposed to be covering open.
In the end, the wicked shot off the stick of P.K.Subban to win the game was the only thing that mattered. You know why? The NHL regular season, as my good hockey-watching buddy maintains, is a house league. The only important goal during the season is to rack up enough points to make the playoffs. Despite all the heart attacks, the Canadiens are 6-1-1 in their last eight games. That's, if you're counting, 13 out of a possible 16 points.
Sure, the wins aren't pretty, or easy on the heart. Too many games are going to OT, there are too many defensive breakdowns and the Habs score too few goals. They also tend to choke at important times, like the end of periods when they give up backbreaking goals more often than Elizabeth Taylor changed husbands. Still, they're wins.
For those inclined to criticize the nature of those wins, consider this: the Canadiens are without their best offensive defenceman and their best defensive defenceman. What other team could survive that kind of depletion and still find a way to win? Imagine the Pens without Letang and Martin. Or the Wings without Lidstrom and Kronwall. Markov and Gorges are to the Habs what those players are to their teams. So, if the Canadiens can keep winning despite that, it's not for us to pick those wins apart.
That said, P.K.Subban is learning on the job like a WWII bomber pilot. He's getting better and better every night, and played nearly 28 minutes against the Flames. His mistakes are still glaring, but they're not as frequent as they were, and his OT goal last night, with its accompanying exuberant celebration (don't ever change, kid!) made a heart-attack game a heart-warming one.
Subban's not alone. Eller, Max Pacioretty and Yannick Weber are learning as they go as well, and this experience in the long grind of the regular season will benefit them if they're able to keep winning enough games to make it to the real show in the spring. That, in the end, is all that matters.
We may wish the Habs scored more goals, or boasted a tighter defence or had a more adventurous coach. They don't. Yet, they still find a way to do the only thing that matters: win enough games to stay in the playoff race. As long as they manage to to that, we can all just keep the paddles charged and cheer for them.