By HOWARD BERGER
TORONTO (Apr. 24) – Yes, Leaf fan, I get it. You’d rather have hemorrhoids than watch the Montreal Canadiens knife through the opening round of the Stanley Cup playoffs. Especially when “Stanley Cup playoffs” is such a foreign term. But, c’mon. A small amount of courtesy toward les Habitants is hardly too much to ask – not just for their woodshed slaughter of the Tampa Bay Lightning, but for being the best team in the National Hockey League over the final month of the season.
This could hurt, yet it must be said: Playing as they are, the Canadiens will be a gorilla’s hand-full for either Boston or Detroit in the conference semifinal. Upon suggesting this on Twitter after Tuesday night’s sweep of the Lightning, indignant Maple Leaf followers did what they always do: rationalize. “It’s easy to beat a team without a goalie,” they sniveled. “How could Montreal lose with seven players on the ice – five of their own and two referees?” Enough battery acid flowed through cyberspace in 15 minutes to power a stadium-lot full of cars.
But, let’s do the analytic thing. After a victory at Los Angeles Mar. 13, the Maple Leafs had played 67 games – the same number as Canadiens. Montreal trailed the Leafs by one point in the Atlantic Division standings. Exactly a month later, when the regular season ended on Apr. 13, Montreal was 16 points and nine lengths ahead of Toronto. While the Habs went 11-4-0 in their final 15 games to place third in the division, the Maple Leafs, as you know, did a 3-12-0 face-plant and finished sixth – a point behind the downtrodden Ottawa Senators.
IMAGINE STEVE OTT AND ST. LOUIS BLUES FACING MONTREAL FOR THE STANLEY CUP THIS SPRING. THERE WON’T BE ENOUGH PROZAC HERE TO GO AROUND. CBC IMAGE
Given that Brendan Shanahan has yet to make himself known as president of the Blue and White, we cannot be sure who to blame for the most recent cataclysm. What we can tell you, however, is that Montreal played splendidly when it mattered down the stretch and took full advantage of Ben Bishop’s absence from the Tampa Bay line-up in the opening playoff round. As the saying goes, life is ten percent what happens to you and 90 percent how you deal with it. The Habs got that ten percent break when Bishop went down against the Leafs in the final week of the schedule and made liberal use of the 90 percent capacity to govern their fate. To suggest that T-Bay would have reversed the tide against Montreal with its No. 1 goalie is a tad wishful. Perhaps the Lightning might have won a game. But, assuredly nothing more.
Now, the Canadiens have some down time… a week – maybe longer – to recharge while the Bruins and Red Wings clash to determine their next opponent. In my view, that is worth at least one victory in the conference semifinal and the true benefit of inactivity will heighten as the round progresses. If Boston and Detroit battle through six or seven games, Montreal could have a decided advantage. Maybe not to start but certainly in Games 4 through 7. Providing Habs don’t fall into a 2-0 or 3-0 series hole, they could advance to the Cup semifinal against Pittsburgh, Columbus, New York Rangers or Philadelphia. And, the notion of Montreal defeating any of the aforementioned is hardly absurd.
Clearly, the nightmare scenario around here is a Montreal-St. Louis Stanley Cup final. Montreal for obvious reasons and St. Louis to potentially end the ridiculous argument that the Maple Leafs and Blues have an identical championship drought. Never mind that St. Louis hadn’t yet played a game in the NHL the night Toronto last raised the mug. Then, there’s the small matter of a 10-0 lead by Montreal in Stanley Cup victories since 1967 and the frightful reality that Leafs haven’t even been to the dance throughout Montreal’s record Cup famine (post-1993).
So, the Internet bile on Tuesday night – though typically inelegant – was predictable. This is what happens when a full generation of hockey’s most loyal fans cannot recall a post-season triumph. It has, in fact, been 10 years and four nights since the Leafs last won a playoff series – knocking off Ottawa in Game 7 of the first round on Apr. 20, 2004.
Which means a Toronto hockey zealot has to be in his or her late-‘teens (more likely their early-20’s) to possibly remember such a thing.
Is it any wonder that Twitter bellyaching is so cathartic?
CANADIENS HAVEN’T WON THE CUP SINCE DEFEATING GRETZKY AND THE KINGS IN ’93.
But, how ’bout some credit for the Habs? GM Marc Bergevin made a terrific acquisition at the trade deadline with Tomas Vanek from the Islanders and Carey Price – who all Leaf fans were rooting for in Sochi – is proving to be a Stanley Cup-caliber goalie. After losing their composure and imploding against Ottawa in the first round of last year’s playoffs, the Canadiens built momentum heading into the Cup tournament this year and laid a butt-whipping on Tampa Bay.
There is absolutely no indication – as we speak – that Montreal cannot compete with any of the remaining teams in the East.
To suggest otherwise is sour grapes.
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