When the Cinderella season finally ended, your Montreal Canadiens shook the hands of the players who had just eliminated them.
Then they stood at centre ice, waving their sticks at those who had stayed at the Bell Centre till the bitter end of a 6-1 loss.
Watching, I couldn’t suppress a nagging, glass-half-empty thought:
This acknowledgement of fan support surely will be repeated in the spring of 2014.
But it might be after 82 games.
My pressbox neighbour, Marc De Foy, was writing his column for the Journal de Montréal. The title: “Which were the real Montreal Canadiens?”
A reasonable question to ask, because the Montreal Canadiens who surprised and delighted their fans through 40 games of the truncated season was not the team that stumbled down the stretch and exited the playoffs ignominiously against the Eastern Conference’s seventh seed.
Did the undersized Canadiens run out of gas? If so, how will they cope with an 82-game schedule.
Bear in mind, also, that the Canadiens played one game outside the eastern time zone this season – and it wasn’t until Game 47, a 4-2 win in Winnipeg. How will they fare with a schedule that will include 28 games against the Western Conference?
Have you watched any of the playoff series between the defending champion L.A. and St. Louis? If the Canadiens were physically dominated by Ottawa, how do you think they’d fare against the Kings or Blues? There’d be a team meeting in the Emergency ward.
My great and good friend Mitch Melnick made this point during his pre- and postgame analysis on TSN 690: The Montreal Canadiens have to get bigger. Speed and skill may notch a few regular-season wins against the Buffalo Sabres, but the playoffs are a whole new ballgame.
Look, I’m not biased against small players.
The great Martin St. Louis is a first-ballot Hall of Famer who just won the Art Ross Trophy. Cory Conacher, St. Louis’s former teammate, scored twice in Game 5 for Ottawa.
Barring injury, Brendan Gallagher is going to be a terrific player for many seasons to come. But Gallagher is part of a lineup that also includes David Desharnais and Brian Gionta.
Gallagher and DD were skating against an Ottawa defence that includes 6’5″ Jared Cowan, 6’3″ Marc Methot, 6’3″ Chris Phillips and 6’4″ Eric Gryba. Patrick Wiercioch, who’s 6’5″, was a healthy scratch.
Contrast this with the Canadiens. Jarred Tinordi, 6’6″, is part of a defence corps that includes Francis Bouillon, Josh Gorges and Raphael Diaz.
Ottawa set the tone in Game 1 of the series. While being outshot 50-31, the Senators outhit the Canadiens 31-24. Eric Gryba ended Lars Eller’s season, and Max Pacioretty sustained a shoulder separation that the team kept secret while Max soldiered on like a latter-day Bob Gainey.
In the only game the Canadiens won, they outhit the Senators 37-26 last Friday. But on Sunday at Scotiabank Place, physical dominance was restored. Ottawa outhit the Canadiens by a slight margin, 47-44, but that doesn’t include the punches they landed in winning all those fights.
Then in the series’ pivotal game, Ottawa recorded 61 hits en route to the OT win that gave them a stranglehold on the series.
Brandon Prust, who missed Game 5, led the Canadiens with 19 hits in the series. Pacioretty, bum shoulder and all, had 14.
Chris Neil had 29 hits for Ottawa. Methot had 18.
And hits don’t tell the whole story.
I don’t want to take anything away from Craig Anderson. The Ottawa goaltender was the MVP of the series. To say Anderson was better than Carey Price is like saying ice cream is better than broccoli.
Not even close.
But Anderson was protected by the aforementioned hulking defencemen who denied the front of the net to what few Canadiens dared venture there.
It was a different story at the other end of the rink. Price’s lack of help was exemplified by the crease-crashing scramble that sent Game 4 into OT … and ended the Canadiens’ goaltender’s season.
For Melnick, me and doubtless many others, this is Marc Bergevin’s biggest off-season priority. The Canadiens’ general manager has to make his team bigger, tougher and harder to play against.
Bergevin knows this. In 1,271 regular-season and playoff games in his well-traveled career, Bergevin spent 1,142 minutes in NHL penalty boxes. His brain trust – Rick Dudley, Scott Mellanby and Larry Carrière – were all tough NHLers.
And the Canadiens’ director of scouting – Trevor Timmins, who survived the purge of the Gainey-Gauthier regime – knows how to find players. And the Canadiens have six picks in the first three rounds of what is supposed to be a very good draft.
Assuming Lars Eller makes a full recovery, the Canadiens are set at centre. They’ve got Prust, Pacioretty, Rene Bourque and Travis Moen at left wing.
There’s an issue on the right side. Behind Gallagher, the Canadiens have a Gionta of diminishing skills, plus Ryan White, Michael Blunden and, if they re-sign him, Colby Armstrong.
Michael Ryder? He’s outta here. Total crap against Ottawa, while playing for a new contract.
The core of the D is the great P.K. Subban, the promising Tinordi and, hopefully, the recovered Alexei Emelin. Gorges and Diaz are undersized and Bouillon was used too much.
Andrei Markov? During the regular season, everyone said his superb vision and hockey sense compensated for the fact he can’t skate anymore. The Senators managed to expose the latter problem.
So here’s my shopping list for Bergevin: A tough winger who can save Prust from having to fight every night and a stay-at-home Dman who can wreak vengeance on anyone who gets too close to the crease.
As for the goaltender …
Hey, peeps, it’s going for 1 a.m. on the unhappy night that ended a long season.
Sorry, I just don’t have the energy for a Price analysis.
Maybe that should be left to the team psychologist.
Hey, it was an amazing season. Your Canadiens delivered more thrills and Ws than any of us could have hoped for.
The team has a core of outstanding young players, a solid front office and a head coach that did an excellent job.
The glass is half full.
See you in September.
• • •
And because we could all use some soothing after a tough playoff loss: