A season that began deluged with questions, ended with a single, stark statement:
Les Glorieux are back.
A bit over a week has gone by since the 2007-08 season came to an end for the Montreal Canadiens, and there is now one week less to go until the start of next season. The team may have lost their final game and with it, their 2nd round series to the under-estimated and much maligned Flyers, but the Habs most definitely did not finish the year as losers.
Prior to the 07/08 season, before any skates had been sharpened or any pucks dropped, journalists, pundits, and amateur enthusiasts were making bold predictions about which teams would still be lacing it up come April.
Many experts predicted that the Habs would be swinging irons this spring instead of slapping sticks. Scott Burnside of ESPN penciled Montreal into the 14th spot. The Hockey News put them in at 13th. Pat Hickey gave the boys a hometown deal and the eighth seed in the East. Red Fisher was even more generous, sneaking the Habs into 7th place. Although Red thought that the team still needed "a big name game-breaker like [Daniel] Brière". Brière? Ouch.
But the Bleu-Blanc-Rouge surprised us all – knocked our socks off, really – by finishing first in the Eastern Conference. They didn’t just win, however, they won with style: Les Boys had the highest scoring offense (262 GF) and the most potent power play (24.2%; 90GF) in the league; they had a player who finished 11th overall in scoring; they had an all-star defenseman; they could beat you with the dazzle and speed of their youth or the smarts and grit of their seasoned veterans. They had a glut of talent between the pipes. This, of course, is what we know now.
Looking back at the pre-season predictions, it is impossible to condemn any analyst for putting the Habs on the outskirts of the standings. There were simply too many unknowns.
Would Alex Kovalev finally step up to be the player that everyone knew he could be?
With golden locks flowing and a playful and confident quickness in his stride, AK-27 answered that question with a resounding ‘yes’. The Russian Magician returned from a dismal 2006-07 season and finished with 35G-49A-84P, a +18 plus-minus rating, and most importantly – a renewed love for the game.
Could the Habs recover from the loss of UFA Sheldon Souray?
When Souray and his howitzer of a shot bolted for big Oil money, people naturally assumed that the Habs lethal powerplay would start firing blanks. Surprisingly, it was quite the opposite. The attack with the man-advantage actually got better. What the Habs lost in pure firepower, they more than made up for with creativity and team work. Goals were chipped in by everybody and from everywhere.
Would the Habs youth movement sink or swim?
Andrei Kostitsyn, a big question mark at the beginning of the year, exploded with a 26G-27A-53P and a +15 plus-minus rating. The scrutiny that was focused on him soon turned to his younger brother, Sergei. Any doubt about SK-74, however, evaporated in about a shift – he finished the season with 51 hard earned penalty minutes and 9G-18A-27P in 52 games. And speaking of youth movements, have I mentioned Carey Price? During the final stretch of the regular season, after former All-Star Cristobal Huet had been shipped off, Price more than proved himself, showing that he deserves to back-stop an NHL team.
Looking back, every big question was answered with a positive. Not to say that it was an entirely fairy tale season: the Habs goal-scoring prowress was stymied when it counted most, Michael Ryder did improve his defensive play but not without hurting his offensive game, Carey Price was great – but showed that he’s human, and it is obvious that Guillaume Latendresse has not yet matured into the power forward that the team still needs. All in all, however, this season was more than a step in the right direction – it was a big, unified leap. The veterans flexed their muscles, using their experience and leadership, and the youth impressed by showcasing some of their fantastic potential.
Looking back, we can put to rest the big, worrisome questions that were surrounding the Habs. Looking back, we can now look forward.