When the final horn sounded Thursday night at Madison Square Garden, one couldn’t shake the sense that the Habs missed a big opportunity and let a chance at the Finals slip through their finger tips over these past ten days….an opportunity that doesn’t figure to come around too often in the near future for Montreal.
A little extreme? Maybe. But there’s no denying the breaks Montreal caught during its playoff run this year.
- Round one: the third-place Canadiens had the good fortune of running into a Ben Bishop-less Tampa Bay Lightning. All Bishop did this regular season was finish among the league leaders in most statistical categories and be named a finalist for the Vezina Trophy. Unfortunately for the Lightning the goalie suffered a season-ending injury and they were forced to turn to the backups. Tampa Bay’s duo of Anders Lindback and Kristers Gudlevskis finished with a sub-.900 save percentage and a goals against average well above 3. Any one think a healthy Bishop could have done a little better than that? Who knows if Tampa would have won, but no doubt the series goes longer than four games.
- Round two: a well-rested Canadien squad drew its long-time rival Boston Bruins. While the Bruins were considered favorites, the older legs, especially of Zdeno Chara, started to tire. The Canadiens were able to pester the Bruins enough to get them off their game to upset them in game 7. It also helped that the Bruins hit about seven posts in the series and goaltender Carey Price played terrific throughout.
- Round three: thanks to the Rangers upsetting the Penguins, Montreal was gift-wrapped home-ice advantage and facing a goalie that they had dominated at the Bell Centre. So what happened? The Canadiens dropped the first two at home and could never get even-up in the series.
So even with a number of breaks, the Canadiens couldn’t take full advantage and now have to wonder if they’ll be able to get back there again soon.
(Yes, I know what Canadiens’ fans are saying: “but we lost our goalie too.” True, and it appeared to be a huge blow. But after watching that series, can anyone honestly say the Canadiens lost because of goaltending? In fact there were too many times during the series that rookie goalie Dustin Tokarski was the only reason why Montreal was even in games against the Rangers. The best example was during game 6 where Montreal played with the intensity of a pre-season game and Tokarski gave his team a chance to steal another game. Unfortunately for Tokarski the one goal he let up was too much for his teammates to overcome.)
So why will they struggle to be back in this position again? Well, the roster on the ice these playoffs will look very different come October. They currently have 11 players that are set to be restricted or unrestricted free agents this summer. No doubt they’ll pony up the cash to retain dynamite defenseman PK Subban, but who else after that?
Tough decisions are coming on veteran defensemen Andrei Markov and Mike Weaver as well as captain Brian Gionta. All three were key contributors but are in the later stages of their careers and Montreal may be looking to move on from them. While the Canadiens appear to be in decent cap shape should they choose to sign all three, they also need to keep in mind that forwards Brendan Gallagher and Alex Galchenyuk will be due for raises soon and it’d come as no surprise to see all three veterans shown the door. Will their replacements, whether kids from the farm or outside the organization, be able to replace the production leaving the team? It’ll be a tough task for sure. (I guess the Canadiens could try to re-sign Thomas Vanek, but all signs point to him bolting as soon as possible to Minnesota, despite his rough playoff performance.)
The Habs will also have to contend in the Atlantic with an up-and-coming Lightning team, perennial powerhouse Bruins, the Detroit Red Wing machine, and teams like the Ottawa Senators and Toronto Maple Leafs that both were in the playoffs last year. They will have to find ways to improve and stay competetive in its division knowing that one bad move, one bad injury, is all that stands between a playoff spot and sitting on the couch come April. All those teams figure to be in the mix again next year in the Atlantic.
Another issue that will hold back the Canadiens, and probably the most important, is the question marks on the blue line. Assuming they re-sign Subban (and they’d be crazy not to), it still leaves the team with holes on the blue line. Josh Gorges and Alexi Emelin are solid, but struggled with the speed of the Rangers (to be fair, Emelin was hurt game six). The youngsters who did see time on the blue line were often overwhelmed by the Ranger forwards and left Tokarski to fend for himself too frequently. With teams placing a greater emphasis on puck possession and speed, Montreal simply doesn’t have the talent on the blue line for sustained success (just imagine if they had a guy back there like Ryan McDonagh to pair with Subban? Boy, those guys are hard to find though.)
The Canadien players all said the right thing after the game: they were proud of their team and promised better days were ahead. It’s what their fans wanted to hear, but no question the players know they wasted a golden opportunity, one they may not be in a position to see for some time.