Well, friends, it looks like the Habs are rounding nicely into playoff form. In fact, having lost four of their last five with only three games to go, they could even be primed to bring home the franchise's 25th Stanley Cup. Okay, that sounds ridiculous with the way this team is playing right now, obviously. However, a quick look back at the last two Canadiens championship teams shows an encouraging pattern.
In 1985-86, the Habs stumbled down the stretch with a 3-6-1 record in their last ten games, with little hope of playoff success, a room divided between rookies and veterans and a goalie controversy. They were four games under .500 for the months of March and April, including a six-game losing streak. In no way was that team expected to win the Cup.
Then, in 1992-93, the Canadiens went 4-6 in their last ten, got outscored 36-24, were shutout twice and generally looked like a one-and-done playoff team. After losing the first two games against the Nordiques, nobody would have bet on what happened after that.
So, here we are again, with the playoffs looming and the Habs struggling. Common sense says the team is finally hitting the mat after having punched above its weight for 40 games. It's hard to believe a squad that finished 15th in the East last year and now is near the top of the conference has really made such a drastic turnaround in just one season. The whole year has had the ethereal feel of cotton candy: substantial on the stick, but barely a mouthful of melted sugar when you taste it. It was just a matter of time before the Habs meltdown happened, say today's sensible observers.
Not so fast, though. While we're asking ourselves what the hell has happened to Carey Price, the defence and the tenacious forecheck the team used to have, we need to remember the things that brought the Habs to this point are still there. There are no magic bullets for this year's Canadiens. They don't boast a superstar without whom they'd be lost. Everything they accomplished this season has been through hard work, team play and determined, relentless skating. Those things aren't irretrievably lost because of a few losses.
What we've seen in the last six games is the letdown of a team that was busting its butt to redeem itself after last year by getting back to the playoffs. Once it accomplished that goal, quite convincingly, against the Sabres back on April 11, they collectively relaxed and breathed a sigh of relief. Unfortunately, they forgot that if they aren't first on loose pucks, they risk exposing their rather shallow defence and their good-but-not-spectacular goaltender to more shots and better chances. If they don't buzz the offensive zone with three aggressive forwards, pushing their opponents back on their heels, they get pushed around themselves. If the forwards don't come back to help the D out, the defencemen are left with few breakout options for turning the play back the other way. They make low-percentage long passes, easily intercepted by opposing forwards. If they don't use their one deadly weapon...their speed...to its full advantage, they look very ordinary and not much of a threat.
The results of the last six games prove those unsettling facts. Why the Habs continue to make the same mistakes is the part that's tough to understand. Maybe they're more beat up than they're letting on. Perhaps the loss of Alexei Emelin and his physically-intimidating play has stolen some of their swagger and emboldened their opponents. Or perhaps it's the compressed schedule that preempted proper practice time. Maybe it's just the subconscious acceptance of having accomplished their first goal and the mental regrouping they need to do as they approach their second goal in the post-season. Whatever the reason for the current slide, it's far from unfixable. The Canadiens got where they are with a very simple approach, and they'll need to get back to those basics to recover their equilibrium.
One thing we, and the Habs, know is that the playoffs are a whole new beginning. That's why the eighth-place LA Kings were world beaters last spring. It's why a powerhouse Bruins team was beaten by the underdog Habs and rookie goalie Ken Dryden in 1971. And it's why the '93 and the '86 Canadiens struggled down the stretch in the regular season, then found new life in April. Once you're in, anything can happen. The Habs are a long way from dead, even if it feels like the paramedics are en route to the Bell Centre. For those of us who've seen this act before, some might say they could be getting ready to surprise a lot of people.