Oh, but the Canadiens bandwagon is a desolate vehicle today. The empty seats are littered with discarded tissues, pieces of broken heart and leftover shards of I-told-you-so. Its once-shiny tricolour paint is chipped and the weathered, grey same-old is showing through. Rain drips from its roof, running tear-like down its windows. The clipping pace it used to keep has slowed to a desultory crawl with two flat tires. Those still aboard, even the natural optimists, speak in hushed tones of what might have been.
The team that came out flat-footed against the Rangers to start Game One, probably due to an emotional hangover from beating the hated Bruins in a hard-fought seventh game, was not the same one we saw in Game Two. This team, still absorbing the devastating news of Carey Price's injury, came out and did all the things that allowed it to beat Tampa Bay and Boston. Only this time, Henrik Lundqvist lived up to his all-world reputation and Dustin Tokarski looked like was starting his first-ever NHL playoff game.
The Canadiens are facing a level of adversity with which they haven't had to deal in this post-season. Previously, if they poured on the heat and controlled possession, something would go into the net. Not this time. Having failed to take advantage of their infrequent power plays, their lack of 5-on-5 scoring is exposed. The power-forward version of Rene Bourque has sunk back into his usual rut. P.K.Subban is playing lots of minutes, but seems to feel he's got to do everything himself, while his exciting end-to-end rushes are low-percentage plays that rarely end in a goal. Thomas Vanek is going to hit the free-agent market in July, and Marc Bergevin likely won't be first in his line of suitors.
The Rangers present an issue the Canadiens have not yet faced in these playoffs: a defensive corps better than their own. The Tampa defence wasn't as good, plus they were missing their starting goalie. The Bruins were missing top-four guys Dennis Seidenberg and Dennis McQuaid. If the old adage that defence wins championships is true, the Rangers have the advantage in this series and the Canadiens don't have an answer. Ryan McDonagh (pause for weeping, gnashing of teeth and abuse of Bob Gainey voodoo dolls) isn't as dynamic as Subban, but he's strong, positionally sound, smart and a threat offensively. Dan Girardi is a solid shut-down guy as well, but better in most areas than Josh Gorges. Anton Stralman's biggest challenge is his difficulty in dealing with big, net-crashing forwards, which isn't a major issue when facing the Habs. He's also eight years younger than Andrei Markov. Marc Staal is big, strong and a former first-round pick. He's leagues ahead of Alexei Emelin in every sense. Kevin Klein is younger and bigger than Mike Weaver, and John Moore for Nathan Beaulieu is a wash.
As a result of the mismatch on D, the Rangers are getting clear looks at the Habs net, while the Rangers are blocking shots, clearing rebounds, pushing the Canadiens to the outside and just generally doing a great job in allowing Lundqvist to see as much as possible. And, when Lundqvist can see everything...well...we've seen the result twice now. The loss of Carey Price is particularly devastating in this sense, because his great positioning covers up for a lot of the defensive gaffes his D-men make.
The Habs did well to possess the puck so much as they (with a few exceptions) busted their butts to defy the bad luck of Price's loss. The truth, though, is sometimes there's a loss a team just can't overcome because the hole he leaves uncovers other, fundamental weaknesses. The Canadiens have been rocked by Price's injury and they've tried their best to get back into the series, only to be frustrated in the Rangers zone. These are mental blows from which recovery will be difficult.
Despite its lighter load, the bandwagon will continue to wobble along for at least another two games. It's particularly tough to watch the wheels fall off because this year, it looked like the Habs had something special. They were healthy (for once), their special teams were working, they were getting unexpected goals from previously-underachieving players, Carey Price was having his best playoffs to date and they believed they could win. They believed in themselves, and made us believe too. Now, with Price gone and little else working like it was in the previous two rounds, the belief is ebbing away. We're forced to accept that sometimes, even a good team can be outmatched. With the Rangers' superior defence it's going to be very tough for the Canadiens to come back in this series, but it should help Marc Bergevin organize his priorities.
Many of the new fans the Habs picked up at bandwagon stops along this playoff road have decided to pack up their stuff and jump off now that things are looking grim. Those of us who've punched lifetime tickets are jumping off too. After all, somebody's got to get behind it and push it uphill.