Don’t count the Habs out just yet



PHILADELPHIA — Underdog to underwhelming to undertaker in 24 hours. Who said Montreal Canadiens fans overreact?

Their heroes had been smoked 6-0 on Sunday night by the Philadelphia Flyers in Game 1 of the Eastern Conference final, the first step in a series that has between three and six games still to play.

But Monday you could feel the angst of Montrealers all the way down at ice level of the Wachovia Center. And to say angst is to, well, underestimate the funereal mood.

Cheer up. Monday’s loss wasn’t even the worst Canadiens playoff shutout defeat in their history. That would have been a 7-0 loss to the Seattle (not Glen) Metropolitans, champions of the Pacific Coast Hockey Association, on March 19, 1919.

The hapless Montreal goaler that night? Georges Vezina.

There was no Stanley Cup awarded in 1919, only the NHL’s second season, when the championship was abandoned during the global outbreak of the deadly Spanish influenza.

Notwithstanding the sniffles and watery eyes of prematurely heartbroken Montrealers, this year’s Stanley Cup will indeed be awarded, and the Canadiens are a long way from being out of the race.

Have Canadiens fans forgotten that this team has made a habit out of living dangerously this entire season, making the playoffs in their final scheduled game, then staving off playoff sudden-death five times?

One loss to the Flyers, no matter how gruesome, is not a reason to leap in front of a bus.

On Monday, there were no signs in the Canadiens camp of panic, concern, even gentle anxiety. No Negative Nates here.

Eight Montreal skaters, goalie Carey Price and even unhelmeted assistant equipment manager Steamer Ouellette dampened their blades in an optional, early afternoon practice that hardly was held beneath black clouds.

Near session’s end, forward Mathieu Darche borrowed Price’s gloves and stick and stood/knelt in the net, not entirely distinguishing himself. He did stop farmhand Ben Maxwell at least once, however, which won’t be a highlight in that young man’s career.

And then Darche dropped the gloves and staged a fight with Price. They duked it out not far from the ad painted on the ice that read “American Red Cross — Give Blood.” Not a drop was spilled.

Asked about Darche’s skill as a goalie, Price just rolled his eyes.

“I think I have a better chance of playing forward,” he said, peeling off his equipment.

Since there was enough discomfort in Montreal to go around, the Canadiens didn’t find the need to feel any of their own.

“We want to win more than they do,” Brian Gionta said, smiling, when asked what he’d tell nervous fans back home.

“We’re not happy with the start we had. But ultimately, that’s what the playoffs are. You have a game, you have a day to regroup and correct things that need correcting or get prepared for the next game.

“Momentum shifts so much throughout the course of the game, throughout the course of the series. It’s the first game. There’s a lot more to this series left.”

Gionta is a charter member of the Canadiens’ leadership-by-committee group, a strong core that includes Scott Gomez, Hal Gill, Josh Gorges and the rehabbing Andrei Markov, who was not among those skating Monday.

Even in a blowout like that of Game 1, Gionta said, there is no extraordinary meeting of those influential minds to find a message to share with teammates.

“You (meet) regardless of what the outcome of the game is, what the score was,” he said. “You always look back and analyze it.

“But there’s also a fine line between analyzing and worrying too much instead of forgetting about it and going out and getting back to what’s made you successful. We knew we got away from that (Sunday) night.”

Pretty much from top to bottom, the Canadiens offered a shabby effort against a Flyers team still soaring on the jet stream of its Game 7 comeback against Boston.

Montreal wasn’t the club that has ground out eight victories against Washington and Pittsburgh; four goals allowed on 14 shots wasn’t the Jaroslav Halak who threw his team on his back night after night.

“I don’t think it’s (Halak’s) fault what happened,” Flyers forward Simon Gagne said. “We got lucky. It looked like every time we had a big chance, we were able to put it in.”

Two of Philadelphia’s six goals came on the power play, a third coming two seconds after the expiration of a penalty. On Tuesday night, the Canadiens must either be more disciplined or tighten up a penalty kill that’s been a huge part of their post-season success.

Herein lies the joy and the frustration of hockey — for whatever reason, the same bodies can be unable to harness the same high energy, sharp playmaking or golden touch around the net.

So it’s this simple for Canadiens fans:

Should their team lose badly again in Game 2, and show that they’re truly out of the league of the Flyers, panic to your heart’s content.

But until then — and even then — remember this:

Twice, the Canadiens faced elimination against the defending Stanley Cup champion Penguins, and three times they were on the brink against the No. 1-seeded Washington Capitals. And yet they lived to be playing Tuesday night, longer than any of us surely thought possible.

Montreal Gazette

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