The best movie heroes aren't the ones that burst out of the darkest night in tights and capes, saving damsels and destroying villains. They are the ones nobody picks to be heroes. They have impossible circumstances thrust upon them and they react with heroism. The best heroes are Inigo Montoya from the Princess Bride, who spent 20 years searching for the six-fingered man and then braved death to hunt him down at the end. They are Spartacus, and William Wallace and Maximus and Han Solo, who fight the forces of evil and oppression, even though they're really nobody special on their own, but still stand a good chance of being killed for their actions. They are Seabiscuit and Secretariat and Rocky and Rudy and the Karate Kid, who nobody believes have a chance to win anything, but they do. They keep us hoping against hope and leave us sitting there after they're over with a foolish smile and a sense of satisfaction and justice well served. They make us stop flipping channels and settle in to watch again when we run across them, like old friends, on a Sunday afternoon.
This is why, if you ask Canadiens fans to give you the best moment they've experienced in the last five years, they'll almost all tell you it wasn't just one moment, but a string of many, in the 2010 playoffs. There was no greater underdog that year than the Habs, and watching them rise above the sum of their parts to become something better was an inspiration. Seeing Jaroslav Halak, the guy who was given every chance to be Carey Price's backup, face down 50+ shots from some of the best snipers in the game made you believe in magic. Of course, the illusion wavered and then vanished against the Flyers, but it was so much fun while it lasted.
This year, most likely, the Canadiens won't squeak into the playoffs in eighth place. Unless they have a catastrophic meltdown with 17 games to go, Mr.Molson will be happily selling post-season game tickets and counting his money. Still, it's probably fairly unlikely GM Marc Bergevin will make any big deadline deals to land the kind of player who can push a team over the top. The Penguins and the Bruins, on the other hand, are the teams to beat in the East, as far as Jarome Iginla and the rumoured list of four squads for which he'll waive his no-trade clause are concerned. With the Penguins having secured help in the grit (Brenden Morrow) and defence (Douglas Murray) departments yesterday, the Bruins are getting a little more desperate to nail down some scoring help and the Flames are going to be asking a little bit more for their captain.
While all the wheeling and dealing picks up steam the closer we get to April 3, the Canadiens are quietly going about their business, playing their game and waiting for the return of the three injured players, Raphael Diaz, Rene Bourque and Brandon Prust, who can add depth and a diversity to a lineup that's managed a respectable record (9-1-5 since Bourque and Diaz went down) without them. Adding them back to the roster immediately ups the grit factor, improves the PP and helps out with scoring from the wing. The return of Jeff Halpern also will help with faceoffs and the PK, both of which have been weak this year.
On paper, the Canadiens are not the strongest team, nor the biggest, nor the most talented. Their top point producers are Michael Ryder and Max Pacioretty, ranked 47th and 48th in the league, respectively. Leading goal-scorer Tomas Plekanec's 12 puts him in 33rd place. Carey Price's 2.32GAA is 16th and his .911% save percentage is good for 24th among NHL goalies.
What the Canadiens are, however, is a pretty tight team, playing a system that suits it. The Habs might not boast anybody among the top scorers, yet they're fourth in the league with 3.10 goals for per game. They might not have the biggest, strongest defence corps, or the top goalie in the league, but they're sixth overall, in allowing only 2.42 goals against each game, while giving up the fifth-fewest shots on goal. Their even-strength goal differential is second in the league, behind only Chicago, and right up there with the mighty Penguins, Bruins and Ducks. Scoring throughout the lineup is so balanced, it's difficult to tell on many nights which is the first line and which the third...and that's in a good way.
So, while the Bruins and the Penguins, and probably the Kings and Ducks and 'Hawks will be shoring up their weaknesses and bidding futures for the few players who might be available before the deadline, the Canadiens will continue to do what they've been doing all year. If hard work, sharing the load and going the extra bit farther for the sake of the guy sitting next to you are the qualities of a contender, well, that sounds a little bit like this year's Habs. Sure, Boston might get Iginla, and he might be a help. Then again, they may not and he may not. The tricky part about adding at the deadline is the risk a team runs of messing with chemistry, that most delicate and elusive of difference-makers. Not every deal is Ray Bourque-to-the Avalanche brilliant.
The Canadiens have something special this year, just as they are. If they can be healthy heading into the playoffs, whether they add or not, they could surprise. It's funny to say the team leading the Northeast division for a good part of the season would be an unexpected playoff threat, but that's how the Canadiens are viewed at the moment. Most pundits are slotting the Habs in the underdog's role. And that's just the kind of under-the-radar position where you need to be to become an unexpected hero. Just ask Spartacus.