Tuesday, March 25, 2008

x - Montreal Canadiens*

Now that the Canadiens have earned their "x" for clinching a playoff spot, AND proudly wear the asterik as Northeast Division leaders in the NHL standings, we fans can stop worrying about if there'll be hockey in April. Instead, our attention can now be focussed on important things like potential dance partners and signs and omens.

Because, let's face it, when it comes to portents and Fate, hockey fans are more superstitious than the ancient Druids. Who among us doesn't believe in the hockey gods and their capricious giving and taking of lucky bounces? Who'll say "shutout" before the final whistle without feeling at least a little nervous? Who hasn't had, at some point in our hockey-fan careers, a ritual...wearing a certain jersey, sitting in a certain place, following a certain routine...we believe (really believe!) will influence the outcome of a game? And that's just for the regular season.

The playoffs, of course, have given birth to hockey's greatest legends, for the good (Patrick Roy) and the bad (Steve Smith.) And just as the intensity of the hockey ratchets up several notches, so does the enormity of the superstition. Playoff myths take on legendary status of their own, and the Canadiens this year are in a position to challenge many of them.

Myth number one: No team with a European captain has won a Cup. While true, this has taken on overtones of doom to the point at which people are starting to believe no team with a European captain will ever win the Cup. I think no team with a European captain has won a Cup because until recently, there weren't many European captains at all. And the teams on which they played mostly haven't been good enough. Ottawa and Alfredsson got to the finals last year, but the Sens roll-over in Anaheim wasn't the captain's fault. Some would contend Ottawa wouldn't even have beaten Pittsburgh in the first round if Alfredsson hadn't played an aggressive and dominant series. This year, Detroit, with Lidstrom as captain, will give it a good run. And with any luck, so will Saku Koivu and the Habs. It's only a matter of time before this myth is destroyed...but until then, get ready to listen to other teams' broadcasters cling to it as proof positive their squads will beat Montreal.

Myth number two: An inexperienced and unproven team won't win when it's faced with the intensity of the playoffs. I agree with the idea that a team has to lose before it can win, and I believe that the experience players gain by facing adversity can temper them into winners. But the mistake a lot of critics will make when they look at the Habs' chances this spring is that they haven't already learned that lesson. Guys like Chris Higgins, Tomas Plekanec and Mike Komisarek have been to the playoffs and learned against Carolina two years ago what it feels like to get eliminated in the first round. They learned another hard lesson last year when they missed the playoffs by two points. The core of this team has been through the fire of failure already and will have taken important lessons away from that. They're ready and hungry to win. And just as important a factor: the "inexperienced" rookies on the team, like Carey Price, Ryan O'Byrne and Maxim Lapierre have already learned about becoming champions. No one should underestimate the culture of winning they developed by taking the Calder Cup last year. They know the demands of a four-round, best-of-seven playoff better than most. They understand the mental and physical sacrifices it takes to win a playoff like that. They're ready. So are Alex Kovalev who's won a Cup before and Roman Hamrlik who's been to the finals.

Myth number three: A team can't expect to go far with a 20-year-old rookie in net. The easy counter to that one is to recite the names Ken Dryden, Patrick Roy, Cam Ward. But interestingly, a lot of critics and even fans, think that very argument means it would be even tougher for a rookie to do that again. Sort of like believing lightning doesn't strike twice...or, in this case, multiple times. Especially when you consider how many times a kid has bailed out the Habs in particular. The only way to view that one is to understand that Price is a different person with just as much of a chance to make his mark as anyone else, regardless of who came before him. And, as mentioned, Price is a winner. He knows what he has to do, and he has the tools to do it, irregardless of age or NHL experience. But, once again, be prepared for a lot of pre-playoff hockey coverage to focus on the fact that Price has never played an NHL post-season game. We're going to be really sick of that until the first week of the playoffs has passed.

Myth number four: Every once in a while, the Montreal Canadiens come out of nowhere and rise up in the playoffs to become a team of destiny. Okay...that one's true. And I hope this is one of the years the stars align, the bounces go the right way and the team plays over their collective heads. The magic this franchise can create when it starts rolling in the playoffs is very real although often inexplicable. It's enough to overcome a European captain, a rookie goalie and an inexperienced team. It can rile the crowd into a seventh-man frenzy every night and it can get into the heads of opposing teams worse than any superstition they might have previously held. It's enough to push the team the last mile toward that coveted silver bowl, even when it seems they're overmatched or have nothing left to give.

I think this could be a year for destroying old myths and building new ones. As long as someone reminds Saku Koivu not to touch the Prince of Wales trophy if the Canadiens win the conference. Because everyone knows that's a jinx.

No comments: