Will this be the last day of the Canadiens' 2010-11 season? All signs point to...maybe. Today's my birthday, just as it was last year for Game Six against the Caps. I went into that game with absolutely no expectations. After all, the Habs were down three games to one against a very potent Washington offence. The chances they'd pull it off, I thought, were somewhere between slim and none, and would require at least a minor miracle. As it turned out, the required miracle was supplied by one Jaroslav Halak, who pulled off the best playoff goaltending performance I'd seen since Patrick Roy in 1986. His 53 saves stole the crucial win to set up Game Seven and a series victory. So maybe it can happen again this year. Then again, the Habs have also been eliminated three times on my birthday, including a gut-wrenching rout by the Bruins in 1988.
The Canadiens have been, despite their injury troubles, extremely competitive in a series most pundits expected would be an easy win for the Bruins. The mistakes that have cost them games are the kinds of mistakes every team makes in the course of a series. It just seems the Habs have had to pay dearly for every one of them. I've always said to win a Cup, you have to have a healthy team, fully committed to self-sacrifice and a team-first mentality, with its best players leading the way, strong support from the rest of the cast, good goaltending and luck. The Habs' best players are doing okay, the support cast is doing what it can and the goaltending is solid. It's the luck that's been in short supply, and that's something a team can't control. The lack of good luck means the team is dealing with big injury problems. And losing frustrating, close games means the commitment level might be wavering in the face of blame. Despite it all, the team is making a good showing and has nothing about which to be ashamed. Sometimes, two good teams face off and one of them gets fewer breaks. Sometimes, you just lose, even when you give everything you've got.
One good thing about the playoffs is that they offer a sort of perspective we don't get during the season. With games on prime time every night, we get to see other teams up close, and see how they deal with pressure. What's interesting is that we spend so much time with tri-coloured blinders on, analyzing every little flaw in the Canadiens performance, we don't see how they stack up against other teams. Watching the other playoff series objectively, we can see that other good teams make some of the same mistakes the Habs do. We understand better that in the heat and speed of the game, dumb things just happen.
No matter what happens to the Canadiens tonight, they're facing nothing like the pressure the Vancouver Canucks are under. Imagine how terrible we'd feel if our team had won the President's Trophy and looked unbeatable all year, only to choke on a three-to-nothing lead against their nemesis? Imagine if it were the franchise goalie responsible for part of it, and everyone had lost faith in his ability to win in the playoffs? If the Canucks lose tonight, they'll be challenging last year's Bruins for the title of "Greatest Playoff Choke Job." The bonus for Habs fans is, if Vancouver blows it and the Canadiens lose, nobody's going to be talking much about Montreal's exit.
The worst thing about the last game of the playoffs, even if a team wins the Cup, is that it usually marks the end of the team as we know it. There are players we like who won't be back, and other guys we don't know yet who'll take their places. It's a time of transition and always a little sad. Despite some of his brain farts in this series, I like Roman Hamrlik. He's taken on a big role in covering for Andrei Markov the last two seasons, and really helped the team make the playoffs. If the team loses tonight, it's probably his last game in a Canadiens uniform. Ditto for Hal Gill. Unless he comes back next year for a short-term bargain, Pierre Gauthier may have to let him walk in favour of rebuilding the defence to be quicker and younger. James Wisniewski may be too expensive for the team's budget next year, and Benoit Pouliot may have played his way out of a contract. Worst of all, it seems inevitable that Kirk Muller will leave after the season ends. There are a lot of coaching jobs available, and he wants one of them. His departure would be a loss to the Habs, not only because the players love him and look to him for inspiration, but because he's the last link between the current team and the last edition of the Canadiens to win a Cup.
While we feel a bit down about the players who'll be leaving, we'll also have a good picture of who'll still be around next year. Some of that's great news. Lars Eller, David Desharnais and Ryan White have all stepped up their play in the post-season, which is great. Carey Price and P.K.Subban did their part to make the team competitive. We can look forward to the infusion of healthy Gorges, Markov and Pacioretty into the lineup next season, and it's starting to look like a pretty competitive team. Then we come to Scott Gomez. He has to go. Unless he can dramatically turn around a career that's seen declining production for the last several years, Gauthier's got to find a way to get rid of him. He had one good game out of five against the Bruins after the worst season of his career, and that's just not good enough. People will slam me for looking only at his salary, but in a cap world, that's vitally important. He's a major roadblock to improving the team because he makes too much to allow the purchase of better players. And not only is he keeping the team from playing the market for improvements, he's not generating points either. He's a liability the Canadiens can't afford going forward.
Whatever happens tonight, I'm sure the Habs will give it their best possible shot. In the end, that's some comfort if they lose, and some vindication if they win. It'd be a very nice birthday gift to see another miracle Game Six triumph, but if it doesn't happen, at least they tried.