I waited, I trusted, I longed for the day.
A life-time so lonely, my hair's turning grey,
My thoughts are for you love, I'm out of my mind,
For twenty-one years, love, is a mighty long time.
I remember lying awake and listening to the adults singing that on a Saturday night, thinking how awful it must be to spend 21 years in the cold and dark. In the decades since, Habs fans have learned exactly how it feels. We have watched the years slip by with very little real expectation of our once-haughty franchise giving us a new reason to brag. And we know now that 21 years is, most certainly, a mighty long time.
In the desert of playoff seasons between the 1993 Cup and today, there have been too many in which the Habs didn't even make the cut. Those futile years don't bear remembering. Even so, the biggest problem for me has always been when the Canadiens do make the post-season. Every year, I do the same thing. I suspend disbelief and I tell myself "anything can happen." It doesn't matter if the team barely scrapes into the playoffs as the eighth seed, or if they're obviously a one-line squad that lives off its power play. I blithely ignore it if a particular edition of the Habs is riddled with injuries, has a terrible coach or depends almost totally on its goalie standing on his head until his face turns purple. I don't care if the team is the smallest in the league. I fall into the same trap every single time. Get to the playoffs, I tell myself, and anything can happen.
I even look for examples to back up my belief. Remember the 1971 Habs, I say. Or the '86 team nobody expected to win. Look at the Kings, winning the Cup just a couple of years ago after qualifying on the last day of the season. I refuse to notice that the 1971 Habs were the intersecting point of two dynasties, that the '86 team had a rock-solid defence and Patrick Roy playing out of his mind, and that the 2012 Kings were a big, strong team with Drew Doughty on the back end, two guys who scored a point-per-game and Jonathan Quick playing incredible hockey. Sure, I say. There's no reason why the Habs can't duplicate that.
Then, inevitably, reality hits. And it hits hard. The Habs who live and die with their power play face a stepped-up defensive effort and collapse. The ones with the terrible coach blow a series lead when the coach takes a stupid bench minor. The ones with all the injuries can't match a healthy opponent. The ones who need the goalie to be perfect can't support him with goals, no matter how well he plays. And the small, skilled team loses out to the big, skilled team it can't control. In the end, all the sparkly faith I invest in them every spring becomes tarnished with bitter disappointment.
So, this year I've decided I won't be fooled again. I'm very happy the Habs have qualified for the playoffs. I'm delighted they've got a chance to clinch home ice this week, but I recognize the team has issues that could be costly.
While the Desharnais/Pacioretty/Vanek line is on fire, the secondary scoring is inconsistent. The penalty kill is strong, but the power play sputters at inconvenient times. Carey Price gives the team a chance every night, but the defence is spotty and sometimes downright porous. The Habs match up well with Tampa on the ice, but Michel Therrien is known to make strange personnel decisions and have trouble with in-game adjustments when things aren't going well. There are a lot of little guys in the Habs' lineup and sometimes they fall prey to indiscipline.
I know these things are true, so I'm going to go into these playoffs with a clear head and a sensible attitude. I will not spend overtime with my head under a pillow because I can't stand the suspense. I won't pace when things are close, or fear if I don't wear a special Habs sweater at least two hours before game time they'll lose. I will not have unreasonable expectations of Carey Price, Tomas Plekanec or P.K.Subban. If Steven Stamkos gets away and scores, as he is wont to do, I will take it philosophically.
Most importantly, I will take the best moments of the playoffs as they come and truly enjoy them instead of pinning all my hopes on an unreasonable big-picture dream. The risk of ignoring the team's flaws is disappointment erasing all the fun of the games themselves. Twenty-one years is a mighty long time, but it's longer when you expect things you can't have and dismiss the things you can. Maybe this is the year the drought will end for Montreal. Perhaps the magic that makes a good goalie great and guides a puck off the post and in the net instead of out will touch the Canadiens this time around. If it doesn't and a good team eventually bows to a better one, I will have enjoyed the journey.