But for one Friday night in March, the Canadiens refused to be pushed around in the 75th game of this lost season.
Down 3-0 on Erik Cole’s early hat trick and 4-0 shortly thereafter, Ottawa adopted the time-honoured method of climbing back into seemingly lost games.
But the goonery didn’t work.
The post-whistle intimidation tactics of Zenon Konopka and Chris Neil were matched by Staubitz and Ryan White –ably supported, in the physicality department, by P.K. Subban, Mike Blunden, rene Bourque … heck, even Lars Eller got into the pushin’/shovin’/face-washing’/yo-mama chirpin’ act.
The Canadiens stood up for each other. Any time nonsense erupted, five skaters quickly joined the scrum.
After the game, David Desharnais said the addition of Staubitz and White’s return from injury had made things easier for the Canadiens’ skilled players.
Georges Laracque did not have the same salutary effect. But I can see the 2012-’13 Canadiens featuring something this team hasn’t had in a while: a fourth line that opponents don’t like playing against. White, Staubitz and Blunden have size and, unlike Laracque, they can skate, hit effectively and pop the occasional goal.
So we’ve got the DD line and the fourth line set for next season. Now all the Canadiens need is better wingers for Tomas Plekanec and Lars Eller.
And a physical defenceman.
What we can take away from the trouncing of Ottawa and the surprising win in Vancouver – bracketed around less inspiring efforts against the Islanders and Buffalo – is the notion that he Canadiens aren’t as bad as their record suggests.
If the team had held half the leads it has blown this season, if it had better luck in nine shootout losses, if Andrei Markov had been on the power play since opening night …
Ah, you know what?
Those happy hypotheses are a mug’s game.
The Canadiens have had a lousy season that’s been, for the most part, no fun to watch.
What has made it particularly frustrating, however, is they’re not a terrible hockey team.
There are elements in place that offer hope for better days to come. And there have been games – granted, not nearly enough of them – when you can imagine the Canadiens back in the thick of things in the Eastern Conference.
Are they better than the Pittsburgh Penguins?
No. And the rested Flyers could hit Peter Budaj with a tsunami of vulcanized rubber on Saturday night.
But since losing in Calgary, the Canadiens have taken points in seven of the eight games they’ve played.
They have owned Ottawa. The 5-1 win – only the Canadiens’ 14th at home, against 24 losses – offered long-suffering fans a Friday evening of crowd-pleasing hockey.
It was immensely gratifying to see Cole, who hasn’t taken a shift off all season, hit the 30 goal mark, matching the career-best total he achieved with Carolina (in only 60 games) in 2005-’06.
In Cole and fellow Yankee Doodle Dandy Max Pacioretty, the Canadiens have their first pair of 30-goal scorers since Vincent Damphousse and Pierre Turgeom bagged 38 each in 1995-’96.
And had Brian Gionta played a full season …
Well, there are a lot of “what-if?”s to contemplate during the off-season that begins April 8.
The Canadiens can wonder how they managed to dominate Ottawa this year, winning four of six, with the two losses coming in OT and a shootout, while outscoring the Senators 19-11 on the season.
Randy Cunneyworth said his team got up for Ottawa games because the Senators are fast and skilled and the Canadiens were conscious that any thing less than their best effort risked embarrassment.
But that’s the situation the Canadiens face in almost every game. They are not elite team, and the only way they win is by working hard and hoping for some bounces.
They got them against Ottawa. If Eric Condra scores on the breakaway Markov handed him, if Daniel F.’s goal isn’t disallowed, if Carey Price doesn’t make 37 saves.
For one night, the pieces came together.
There have been too few of those nights.