MONTREAL, QC — Many people believe that Tuesday’s game between the Montreal Canadiens and Tampa Bay Lightning is the most important game of the Habs’ season. They say that a win means this team is back in business, on their way to the playoffs and a loss means that their psyche is broken and they will need a complete leadership change. In reality (don’t tell anyone,) the result of the next game will not really mean much more than any of the other 47 games, the Canadiens are guaranteed to play this season.
On January 31, the Buffalo Sabres said that they had an epiphany. Their come from behind 7-4 win against the Boston Bruins was supposed to spring them to where they had never been before. It was the win they would look back at as the turning point on their way to the Stanley Cup. Then, a funny thing happened. They lost to the Montreal Canadiens 6-1. Then they lost to the Florida Panthers and Ottawa Senators by 4-3 scores before finally beating Montreal in overtime and then the Islanders. Right before the game with the Canadiens, people were saying the Sabres turned a corner. It was not the case, to put it lightly.
So, people will look at yesterday’s performance by Montreal and say that the team needs to respond right away and they very well might. They also may lose Tuesday. Canadiens fans have been spoiled with a very good start and now, losers of three straight games, they are quickly turning on the team and its coach. The fact of the matter is, the team isn’t as good as they were early on. They aren’t a contender for the Eastern Conference. They also aren’t a contender for the first overall pick. They, along with most of the Eastern Conference, are in a group of about nine teams that will be battling for five playoff spots.
In the end, yesterday’s game was merely two points that got away from them in the big picture. It doesn’t matter if the game was 1-0 or 6-0. The way that they lost yesterday’s game to the Toronto Maple Leafs could be a wake up call for a team that wasn’t focusing on the little details of a new system. It could also be that, well, this team just isn’t that good.
Most of the media and fans are saying that it’s one or the other. In truth, the reality is probably just in the middle. An average team who had a bad game. After the game, Josh Gorges said that the team wasn’t ready to start and against Toronto, at home, that wasn’t unacceptable. And he’s right. This team isn’t good enough to win games they don’t show up for. And people are getting on Michel Therrien for a lot of things, including keeping Carey Price in the game. I have no problem with that. Pulling Price tells everyone that he was somehow to blame for the game. I think it was evident to everyone that wasn’t the case. Keeping Price in the game wasn’t a message to Price about showing him humility like Mario Tremblay did with Patrick Roy. It was the opposite. It was the coach telling the rest of his players to wake up because he isn’t pinning the loss on any one player.
There is a lot of pride on this Canadiens team and especially among the leadership group. On the outside we look at guys like Gorges, Brian Gionta and the rest of the veterans and say that they will not let their teammates continue playing like they had been. That was a lot of their third period fighting. Sticking up for one another and continuing to battle. A lot of times people complained that these Canadiens never wanted to stand up for each other. That was taken care of last night, and maybe they even showed a little more edge than people would like.
If anything, this allows the leeway to Therrien to shake up a line of David Desharnais, Max Pacioretty and Erik Cole that obviously wasn’t working. Brendan Gallagher really made that line show up a little more than when Cole was on it, and the lineup combinations will be very interesting at practice tomorrow. But, in the long term the actual combinations won’t matter. Unless every player on the team shows up, this team will struggle.
There has been a turnaround in the culture of this Canadiens team and this year is only one year into the process. The fast start may have had some fans dreaming of a quick turnaround and yesterday’s game was a harsh crash back to reality. This team has pieces in place. More than one year ago. But there is still some work to be done, and Tuesday’s result will not really have any effect on what happens between now and the end of the regular season.