When I was a kid, I went to school with a guy we called "Psych," who shall otherwise remain nameless. Psych was an arsehole. If we were supposed to have a math test Monday morning and most of the class had forgotten about it, he'd rush into the room and say, "Hey guys, I just ran into Sir in the hall, and he said he's putting the test off 'til tomorrow." We'd all breathe a sigh of relief. Then the teacher would come in with the stack of photocopied tests and our classmate would snicker and sneer, "Psych!"
The thing was, we all knew he did it, but we'd fall for it every time. "School's closed after lunch because the bathroom flooded!" "Psych!" "Miss said we're watching a movie on Friday afternoon!" "Psych!" The guy was successful because we really wanted to believe what he said. And he was smart. Every once a while, something he announced would actually be true, just enough to set us up for the next round of "Psych!"
I was trying to think of a way to characterize the Canadiens season when I remembered Psych and how he used to "get" us so often. In this case, just when we were pretty convinced the Habs were in freefall following the All-Star game, they rolled off those four wins in a row, pulled within seven points of the playoffs and looked like they were gearing up for a serious run at eighth place. Then, with an eminently beatable Hurricanes team in town, the Canadiens came out tentatively and were run over by the Carolina forecheck. They were second to the puck nearly all night, with exception of the six-minute stretch in the second that put them up a goal. Those three quick goals were, in microcosm, the psych! this season has been.
Essentially, this year has been composed of vast stretches of the entire team's looking lost (with the notable exception of Erik Cole, who consistently looks like iron filings consistently pulled to the net's magnet). Their play has often ranged from mediocre to bad, interspersed with bursts of promise fulfilled that make us hope...for a period, or a day, or even a week...that things have turned around. The good thing about this is that those things we see, the ones that make us keep hoping, are real. This is a team in transition, but it's going to be a quick transition because the players who are beginning to step up now are the ones who will be the core in a year or two.
Louis Leblanc and Aaron Palushaj might not be lighting it up every night, but they're working hard and going to the right places. Max Pacioretty and David Desharnais are coming into their own. P.K.Subban, Lars Eller and Alexei Emelin have been up and down, but gradually swinging toward more good nights than poor ones. Carey Price is on the cusp of his prime. With healthy veterans like Erik Cole, Brian Gionta and Tomas Plekanec, the team is better than it's been playing.
The problem is that there's still so much immaturity to overcome, especially on the defence. The D generally tends to panic when pressured, and that results in bad decision-making and poor passes that keep the forwards bottled in their own zone. The general immaturity shows in the inability to hold leads or push back when the other team pressures them. The "leadership group" that Bob Gainey assembled three years ago is disintegrating as Gionta is hurt, Mike Cammalleri is gone and Scott Gomez and Hal Gill are getting smaller minutes and reduced roles. The kids are learning to be their own leaders, and that will take a bit of time. The good thing about this is the whole group is going to mature together.
With the risk of being labelled a bad fan or an unbeliever, I have to think the Canadiens will not make the playoffs this year, even if they continue to show flashes of what they're capable of being...and will be, in a year or two. Their terrible start to the season with all the injuries and patchwork D has formed a barrier too big to batter down now. That's not to say they should stop trying. They're not likely to be bad enough to land one of the top-two draft picks and after those two, there are lots of other second-tier stars to choose from, so draft position isn't really a consideration at this point. Continuing to push for the playoffs will teach the kids some important lessons in perseverance and in being hungry enough to really want it, which will help in that group maturation process.
It'll help us too, as fans. Winning is so much more fun to watch than hopelessness. Even if they don't make the post-season, they can still be pretty entertaining in the trying. For management, the reality that this will not be a playoff team must be clearly understood and moves to improve made accordingly. We've got to believe they're not as easily duped into false hope as we fans can be.
The four-game winning streak was a little bit of a psych! situation, certainly. However, it's also managed to put this season into perspective. This isn't as bad a team as the record shows, and it's going to get better. We've seen that for ourselves and nobody's going to convince us it was all an illusion.