The Montreal Canadiens wave to fans after defeating the Chicago Blackhawks and clinching a playoff position Tuesday night. (Photo by Richard Wolowicz/Getty Images)
MONTREAL – There was a time in this city when anything short of winning the Stanley Cup was unacceptable. Now the Montreal Canadiens clinch a playoff spot and they’re feted as local heroes.
Hey, but at least they got it out of the way in their third-last game this season. Last year they didn’t clinch a post-season berth until Game No. 82. And that was with an overtime loss on the road. By winning in overtime at home, as they did with their 2-1 victory over the Chicago Blackhawks Tuesday night, the Canadiens head into the post-season with thoughts of another long playoff run on their minds.
But now that they’re officially in, does this team have another trip to the Eastern Conference final in it? Can it once again start on the road and knock off two teams higher than they are in the standings? They certainly hope so, but the reality is the team is going to have to change a lot of bad habits. Either that or goalie Carey Price is going to have to play out of his mind.
The latter is certainly possible given the way he has played all season for the Canadiens.
Veteran Michael Cammalleri, though, was typically blunt in assessing his team’s fortunes in the playoffs.
“I’ve never entered a hockey game in my life that I didn’t think we could win,” Cammalleri said. “So, for sure, right now I’m thinking we can win a Stanley Cup. But at the same time I’m very realistic about the fact that we haven’t been a great team as of late. Probably all year we haven’t been a great team. You have to do exceptional things to win a Stanley Cup. We really have to step it up.”
The Canadiens give up an average of 31 shots a game and in their clincher Price was forced to stop 42 shots. It marked the ninth time this season the Canadiens have given up 40 or more shots and the 30th time they’ve been outshot this season. In fact, in their past 20 games, the Canadiens have been outshot a total of 12 times. The fact that they’re 12-8-0 in those games is a testament to the fact that Price, in the words of Scott Gomez, “is the best (goalie) in the world right now.”
To know they have a week to work out the kinks certainly helps, but the way Cammalleri tells it, they’ll need all that time to get their game playoff-ready.
“I don’t know if nice is the feeling,” he said. “We’ve got work to do. We’ve got big work to do, actually. The hardest work of our season by far to do if we want to be playing for the next few months.”
For players such as Price, the playoffs provide an opportunity for him to dominate games and give the Canadiens the kind of post-season goaltending they got from Jaroslav Halak last spring. For others, such as Scott Gomez, it’s a chance to gain some redemption for what was another sub-par regular season. That’s what happened to a large degree last season.
“Let’s face it, a lot of us have had years where it’s been like, ‘What the (expletive),’ ” Gomez said, “and you can probably put me at the top of that list. I hope I don’t get into that mode where I suck all season and then the playoffs come.”
But there is no doubt the Canadiens picked up some valuable experience from last year’s playoff run. Rookie defenseman P.K. Subban, who scored in overtime to seal the Canadiens victory, was in the lineup all last season. Price watched from the bench and Cammalleri showed himself to be a money player when the games were most important.
“The way I was raised by Mr. Lamoriello (New Jersey Devils GM Lou) is you’re supposed to be in the playoffs, especially in cities like this one,” Gomez said. “That’s the attitude that we want to start here and all the new guys who came in, that’s one thing we wanted to stress to them. It shouldn’t take this long to get into the playoffs.”
But it did and in today’s NHL perhaps that’s all that can be expected from one year to the next. After all, the Canadiens opponent Tuesday night won the Stanley Cup last year and find themselves in the battle of their lives just to get back to the post-season. The “get in and anything can happen,” philosophy has been bolstered in recent years and the Canadiens are hoping it holds true once again.