MONTREAL, QC.– And just like that, it’s over. My head really wasn’t in it as I spent time today preparing for my NFL draft pool. With a temperature in the city of 21C, I played tennis but that didn’t work out too well either.
Yes, there were sub-tornado winds in the area. Add to that, broken strings after five minutes on the court and a backup racquet that sounded like a garbage can lid attached to a grip. But the real distraction to my game was that I couldn’t escape the view of the hockey boards just on the other side of the fence.
There stood stark white boards and an empty rink. It reinforced that hockey in Montreal was over, and I wasn’t yet ready.
In an odd way, I was more accepting of the four-game sweep to Boston in 2009. Bob Gainey stepped behind the bench in March to lead a team whose confidence had been gutted by coach Guy Carbonneau. Injuries had more of an impact in that playoff year and the Canadiens physical players didn’t bother to show up.
This year was much different.
I picked the Canadiens to win the series in six games — not based on loyalty but because I felt that the Bruins were vulnerable to the speed of the Habs and that they had an advantage in goal. Boston’s defense were slow and exploited by Canadien forwards when they aggressively carried the puck into the zone. Carey Price was solid throughout the series giving his team a chance to win whereas Tim Thomas had a shaky series and relied on his defensemen to clear numerous rebounds.
With Montreal coming into the post-season as the most penalized team, I wrote that greater discipline would be required — the Habs took 20 minor penalties, third fewest in the playoffs. The Canadiens also won the special teams battle handedly at 22.2 per cent efficiency on the power-play and not allowing a goal while short-handed.
Many predicted that Montreal would be intimidated by the Bruins — it didn’t happen. Hits were rather even at 194-191 for Boston.
Indicators that were identifed as key to the series favored the Canadiens, they won the first two games in Boston, and the Bruins were battling the Canadiens mystique. So, what happened?
It would seem that the season-long difficulty scoring 5-on-5 played a part — more than 40 per cent of Montreal goals in the series were scored via special teams. The reliance on the power-play was a risky strategy — fewer opportunities were generated with the Habs playing defense the majority of the time.
How do we know that the Canadiens spent more time in the defensive zone? Shots on goal + missed shots + shots blocked number 481 for Boston and only 401 for Montreal. We also know that Jacques Martin’s passive system invites the opposition to advance.
The series wasn’t a coaching gem on either side, yet Claude Julien changed the way the Bruins attacked the neutral zone after Game 2. Coach Martin was unable to make an in-game adjustment and Game 3 was lost. But it was Martin’s one-system fits all which was the greatest barrier to success.
Score first and there is a good probability that the Canadiens win. Surrender the game’s first goal and Martin’s method was sunk. The Canadiens coach was 0-3 this playoff year when trailing first, and a stunning 1-10 over the past two seasons.
Some will point to injuries as the reason that the playoff run stalled. Others will note that the officiating was atrocious. A good number will bemoan the fact that some players didn’t perform to their capabilities.
And then there’s just plain luck.
All are contributing factors. But it’s clear that no matter who plays in the current Habs system, they will struggle to produce offense. Not one of the Canadiens forwards had a career season.
This season has proven that Bob Gainey was right — Carey Price is one of the best goalies in the world (and should have been a Hart Trophy nominee.) P.K. Subban turned a corner and for the last half of the season showed some of the potential that he will bring in years to come. The playoffs finally opened the eyes of all to the talents of Lars Eller and Yannick Weber.
There is reason for fans to be hopeful but fundamental change is required for the Canadiens to move past being a marginal playoff team. To be a contender will require some personnel changes. But it will also need management who can devise game plans that play to the team’s strengths and maximize the potential of the players.
For Habs fans, the end of hockey before the tax deadline is something that doesn’t sit well. This year’s edition of the Canadiens may not have been expected to play on until June but they were certainly capable of making it past the Boston Bruins.
For another perspective read this excellent article from NBC Sports titled Montreal Canadiens: What Went Wrong?