Habs finish in last place... to great applause
Saturday night was a new experience for fans of the Montreal Canadiens. For the first time in history, our team finished last in the Eastern Conference (they once finished last in the seven-team NHL back in 39-40). Far from being the pathetic and humiliating finish one would have predicted, the team was sent off with raucous applause and appreciation following a decisive 4-1 victory over the Toronto Maple Leafs - who in comparison have quite a bit of explaining to do after their precipitous drop in standings.
The Habs have had a shaky year. Disappointment set in early this season and they've been struggling to catch up ever since. The roster of injured players never helped, with captain Gionta bowing out late 2011. And then there were the trades. While I would argue fan favourite Cammalleri had to go (albeit for reasons different than those publicized), Spacek and Gill were real head-scratchers; the first was a competent veteran and the second a charismatic glue for the team. And there were definitely signs of that glue falling apart by midseason. The asisine move to let go of Jacques Martin further hurt the team's cohesion. With captain and coach absent, and a slew of new players of average skill (Blunden, Bourque, Staubitz) even our regulars started to lose their shine. Plekanec became frustrated, Kostitsyn got benched and eventually traded, and Eller (apart from a dream-like 4 goal game) seemed to have lost his youthful vigour.
And yet, from the rough: diamonds. The Cole-Desharnais-Pacioretty trio can go home knowing they performed exceptionally. Cole seems to have shown a mid-career resurgence, which only highlights the importance of forming complementary lines. The year also ended with the surprise return of Markov, who had become something of a running joke with fans who believed he would never return. Carey Price, despite a rough start, has kept the team afloat for much of the year. In many ways, this last place finish is deceiving. The Canadiens lost 26 games by 1 point, and 16 in overtime. Their goal differential is -14. If only those points could be redistributed, the Canadiens may have had a chance to make the playoffs.
But would-ofs and could-ofs don't count in hockey. You admit your defeat, pinpoint your strengths and weaknesses and move forward. Team owners, the Molson brothers, did just that last week when they (finally) fired Pierre Gauthier as General Manager, along with consultant Bob Gainey. Gauthier made some terrible decisions this year. Ironically, while replacing the coach is common practice when a team is losing, Jacques Martin was totally undeserving of this dishonor. Moreover, he put Cunneyworth in the awful position of heading a team knowing he would be out by the end of the season. With the team already struggling, Gauthier made decisions that further undermined their possibility of success. Good riddance.
So where do the Canadiens go from here? The good news: anywhere but down. They have one strong line, and these guys deserve solid contracts for their performance. Gorges, who many contend should be captain, Subban and Markov are strong defenders. Plekanec is a talented player and hard worker who lacks two people in his line to allow him to perform. Backup goalie, Budaj, who was a write-off from the beginning, somehow managed to garner over a .94 save average in the last five games of the season, relieving an injured Price. If the 2013 season can start off with a healed and reinvigorated Gionta-Gomez-Moen line, that's already a good start. First things first: we get some top draft picks. That all starts next week. Trust me, the summer will go by a lot quicker than we think. See you in September!
Image courtesy NHL.