Wednesday, February 4, 2015

The Long Journey Home

In the Middle Ages, if a foot soldier broke his company's rules, he might have been forced to run the gauntlet in punishment. His comrades would strip him to the waist and form two lines facing each other. The offending soldier would have to pass between, while each man beat him in turn, using anything from a metal glove to a club. If the NHL existed back then, the 82-game regular season would be pretty much the same thing. It's long, emotionally exhausting, painful and often dreary. Nobody emerges without physical evidence of having been beaten.

A wise man once said in the regular season all that matters is you finish in the top eight, relatively healthy, and then anything can happen when the real season starts. As we head into the post All-Star stretch, those wise words ring true.

You know how you have a really busy stretch at work leading up to the holidays, trying to get everything done before you have a few blessed days off? And then, in the new year, the let-down hits you in the long, dreary days of winter, with spring looking so far off and work just feeling like drudgery? What do you do? You slack off. Maybe you take a sick day when you're really not all that sick. Or maybe you spend a little more time playing computer games or messaging friends at work than you normally would. Perhaps you push a project back a day or two because you didn't feel like staying late to finish it. The point is, we all drop our intensity level at work from time to time, just because we're tired of it.

Hockey players might play a game for a living, but our dream job is, for them, just a job sometimes. They get sick, or hurt. They lose confidence. They face nights when they're comfortable in the standings and it's a Tuesday night and the worst team in the league is in town and they just don't feel inspired. It happens. The beauty of a house-league regular season is there's room for that. It's not the playoffs in which a couple of stinkers can ruin you.

Of course, we don't like to see the Habs blow a chance to beat a bad team and rise in the standings, especially if we're the unfortunates who paid half a year's salary to watch it happen in person. In the end, however, it's something that might have benefits. A couple of losses like that can re-energize prideful players who get mad at the way they played and bring it for the next game. Those kinds of games also give the team a mental break in the long, long run of an 82-game season. Obviously, the Habs didn't show up against Buffalo (several times) or Edmonton this year. If they had, however, come out in every single game to date with all engines firing and then ended up in first place, what would they have left in April? President's Trophy winners have only ever gone on to win the Stanley Cup eight times.

The regular season isn't for domination. It's for staying as healthy as possible and winning enough games to qualify for the playoffs. It's about building team chemistry and tweaking the lineup and the system to be ready for the playoffs. It gives the GM a chance to call up a lot of young players and check out his available assets before the playoffs. And it lets him see the holes in the fabric of his team so he can pinpoint players to fill them at the deadline as he gives the coaches the best roster possible for the playoffs. It's all about those playoffs.

Witness the 2012 and 2014 Stanley Cup winners, the LA Kings. In 2012, the Kings finished eighth in the Western Conference, third in their division. They arrived in the post-season a distant consideration behind the powerful St.Louis Blues, the 2011 Cup finalist Canucks, and the perennially contending Red Wings and Blackhawks. Nobody really considered them a real threat to make it to the top of the heap in the tooth-and-claw battle of the NHL playoffs. Yet, they plowed Vancouver over in five, swept the Blues, pounded Phoenix 4-1 and ended it against New Jersey in six games. They were big, tough, strong, healthy and opportunistic.

In 2013, the Kings finished fifth in the conference and second in their division. They didn't win the Cup, but they did go three rounds deep, losing in the conference finals. (Incidentally, that's the closest the Habs have come to a Cup since 1993, the memories of which we treasure as triumphant.) Move along to the 2014 season, and the Kings finished sixth in the West, third in their division. They took the mighty Sharks, Ducks and Blackhawks to seven games each and won because they were strong and healthy. Then they decimated the Rangers to win their second Cup in three years.

Not too many teams have had that kind of consistent playoff success in the cap era. The Kings, however, have perfected the art of slumming it in the regular season and cranking up their game when it matters. Hockey players are competitive and they want to be first. The Kings have figured out how not to care if they win their conference or their division. They don't care about anything except navigating the 82-game house league and getting to the other side healthy and ready.

This is the mindset the Canadiens need too.  The pressure in Montreal to win every game is high, and the team tries its best to satisfy that demand. That's why sometimes the odd night when the effort's not there and nothing goes right is beneficial. It reminds fans the players aren't superheroes, and the players that the regular season is a slog and they're not supposed to be a finished product just yet. A wakeup call that there's work to be done keeps the team from feeling too cocky and helps avoid the trap of heading into the playoffs without having faced any adversity during the season.

So, hopefully, while we're cursing Therrien, critiquing the PP and generally wringing our hands over the shame of losing to the last-place Sabres, there are more constructive things going on inside the Habs hierarchy. The escalator up and down from Hamilton should be giving Marc Bergevin time to assess what he's got in the system, as he's preparing to trade for the right winger and defenceman the team needs for a post-season run.

The Habs have run the gauntlet pretty well so far this year. If sometimes a weak guy gets in a good shot that leaves a bruise, it just reminds them to run a little faster next time. In April, the Sabres won't matter. All that will is how well the team has used their 82 games to prepare for the only season anyone cares about.


moeman said...

Excellent read once again J.T.

Glenn Stanton said...

This is so logical it should be posted at all Habs websites.

Steve said...

So true, and so it goes!

K3X said...

I know I knew just put it into words so well. Growing up with the Habs in the 70's is why I get so upset when they lose games they should have won. It's a marathon, not a sprint and when was the last time a pacemaker won a marathon...? Nice one JT!!