canadiens celebrationFor the Canadiens the first round of the playoffs begins Wednesday at the Bell Centre. Before we look ahead, a good time to look back at the 185 day season of the Canadiens.

Predictions are for Gypsies” Toe Blake – 1967.

There are some in my business who think there’s some importance in taking part in the silly business of predicting the outcome of a 1230 game NHL schedule before it starts. Invariably, the people who make their predictions, if they haven’t already forgotten them, at least wish they would go away. How silly? Click on this from last October 7th, the day before the season opened.

We’re not here to pick on and it’s contibutors. They only mirrored the group-think of the time. According to almost every one of these surveys the Bruins would easily be the ‘beast of the east’ and the LA Kings would be the ‘best of the west’. As we know, neither team has made this year’s playoffs.

And the Canadiens? Despite the fact that they were in the Stanley Cup final four last season, the best scenario anyone could come up with was a wild card berth behind the Bruins, Detroit and Tampa  in the Atlantic Division and somewhere around 7th, 8th or 9th in the Conference.

Toe Blake had it right. Save it for crystal gazers.

12 therrienInevitable Collapse?

As late as the beginning of January the same group that felt the Canadiens were an also-ran team, considered their winning record to be nothing more than smoke and mirrors and were stubbornly predicting the team would undergo a Toronto-Maple-Leaf-style implosion before season’s end. The statistical wonks were continuing to parrot their mantra of “everything evens out by the end of the long season” and thus the mathematically predictable sky would ultimately fall in on them. The lesson here is, advanced statistics, as useful as they can be, cannot predict the results of a hockey season any more than the experts who picked Boston and Los Angeles as ultimate Conference champions..

Marching to a Constant Beat

When he coached the Canadiens in the 70’s, Scotty Bowman used to divide the season into ten game segments and set goals within each. Michel Therrien probably doesn’t do things quite the same way but Scotty would have been pleased with the way the Canadiens steadily marched through their schedule. The Habs won exactly eight games in each of the season’s first five months. On March first it was clear the Canadiens were not going to be fighting for a wild card berth and the foot came off the gas as it did with almost every team that felt playoff comfortable.  In March the Habs were 6-6-3 but in April’s six games, with the playoffs approaching they again hit their stride with a 3-0-3 record. The Canadiens won 50 games for the first time in 26 years. They also lost only 22 times tieing them with the Rangers for the NHL’s fewest defeats.

Ottawa Senators v Montreal Canadiens - Game TwoThe Difference 

Only a cock-eyed optimist would have predicted the Canadiens would wind up winning the Eastern Conference and finish second in the overall league standings. Maybe it’s through the lens of rose-coloured Montreal glasses, but it was my opinion back in October that the Canadiens would marginally improve upon the 100 points and ninth place Eastern Conference finish of last season. What nobody predicted was Carey Price‘s season-for-the-ages. There has always been a tendency to separate goaltenders from the so-called “skaters”. It’s the reason why goaltenders get little respect when it comes to candidacy for the Hart Trophy but consistently win the playoffs Conn Smythe Trophy. . Price has clearly risen above the biases. If Max Pacioretty and P.K. Subban and to a lesser extent Plekanec and Markov are the Canadiens “stars”, Carey Price is the “superstar”. He is the Canadiens Sidney Crosby, Steven Stamkos, John Tavares and Alex Ovechkin. Success tends to follow players like them around.

Youth is Served –

Anyone who thought the Canadiens might be a better team than the 2013-2014 version based their optimism on two factors. They hoped the veteran leadership would continue to hold up it’s end while the youth of the team would continue to improve. One need only look at the current version of the Bruins for an example of what happens when the former breaks down. For the Canadiens, the entire over-30 core had good seasons. At the same time the kids and young veterans improved. Alex Galchenyuk and Brendan Gallagher became 20-goal scorers for the first time in their careers. Dale Weise won the team’s Jacques Beauchamp award and P.K.Subban took another giant step toward being a complete player. I’m not part of the group that thinks Lars Eller was a disappointment. His value to the team may be an acquired taste and subtle but it’s still important.

The Front Office –

When the season opened October 8th, the Canadiens lineup included Rene Bourque, Travis Moen, Jiri Sekac plus Manny Malhotra, Mike Weaver and Tom Gilbert. When it closed Saturday night Torrey Mitchell and Brian Flynn had beefed up the fourth line. Devante Smith-Pelle, Jacob de la Rose and Greg Pateryn had injected size and youth while Jeff Petry is proving to be the best deal to come out of this year’s trade deadline. Marc Bergevin continues to refer to his team as a work-in-progress. The progress is palpable.

therrien vBehind the Bench –

Saved this one for last. Although there are better candidates for the Adams trophy, I am a little surprised that Michel Therrien‘s name has not come up at all in the conversation. It is often said that there are well over a million Montrealers who think they can do a better job of coaching the Canadiens than whoever is running the team at any given time, Bowman, Toe Blake and Dick Irvin included. Every talk show in the city knows they can do better. The anti-Therrien complaints include a dislike of the playing system he’s installed. They complain about his line-juggling; he doesn’t allow young players to develop; can’t handle a bench and makes poor tactical decisions. Even so, you would think that at least a segment of these groups would grudgingly admit that Therrien has had something to do with the Canadiens success. It’s difficult to ignore the way the Habs have bought into Therrien’s high tempo system which in the final standings has placed the Canadiens ahead of teams with greater depth of taent such as Chicago, Anaheim, St. Louis and Tampa.

Predictions never stop. After absolutely flubbing the pre-season those who do such things are now going take their shot at deciding the Stanley Cup winner. Any bets where, rightly or wrongly, the Canadiens fare on that list?  My betting is – not very high. (I’ve already seen one tout sheet that lists the Canadiens seventh behind Ottawa and Minnesota among others).  This I,m sure is fine with Bergevin, Therrien, his coaching staff and members of the team.  They’ll just play the games and see how things come out in the end.