MONTREAL — In the wake of the Canadiens’ 3-2 victory over Tampa Bay on Thursday, let’s serve up three ways to look at the club’s recent broken-axle drive down the playoff-bound highway, the skyline of the postseason growing larger by the minute:
1. At the start of this lockout-abbreviated season, very few fans/analysts/“experts” envisioned the Canadiens would be near the postseason cut, no less be toying with the lead in the Northeast Division and hanging near the top of the Eastern Conference in the season’s final days.
2. It’s a heck of a lot better to hear the engine coughing and wheezing a bit now than two weeks down the road, during the first round of the quarterfinals.
3. And did anyone honestly — honestly — expect this team would roll through 44 games with only a single three-game, regulation-time losing streak?
The other side of the ledger isn’t nearly as full, but it’s fuelled by great passion that this week brought Montreal hockey fans — finally! — to the brink of nervous breakdown:
Since the lofty expectations were established many weeks ago, people were pondering during three ugly losses, what the heck is wrong with this crew? What’s happened to the goaltending/defence/offence that was a well-oiled machine only a few weeks ago?
What’s with these 5-1, 7-3 and 6-4 losses that brought us to Thursday’s game against Tampa Bay, the second-last at the Bell Centre this season before the Eastern Conference quarterfinals?
The last time the Canadiens had surrendered five or more goals in three consecutive games was Feb. 7-11, 2009, in the final month of then-coach Guy Carbonneau’s reign.
After a 5-2 loss at home to Toronto, then a 6-2 loss in Calgary, Carbonneau famously took the team for an afternoon of bowling in Edmonton. Good exercise in rented shoes — and then the world’s richest keglers were bombed 7-2 by the Oilers the following night.
“They should have gone ice-fishing,” legendary former Habs captain Yvan Cournoyer joked at the time. “At least they’d have seen some ice.”
There’s been no trip to the alleys for this year’s Canadiens, whose play through this rough patch produced some interesting gutter language from their fair-weather supporters.
Of course, the Carey Price bandwagon predictably refilled Thursday, his 32-save performance anchored by at least a half-dozen magnificent saves and the first-period, puck-smudged work of both goalposts and the crossbar.
The fans’ target during the slump was Price and, to a much lesser degree, backup Peter Budaj, the pair surrendering 18 goals the past week against Toronto, Philly and Pittsburgh.
The goalies have to be better than they were in that span; if Price has ever looked worse than he did in Toronto, yielding three goals on four shots, please provide evidence.
But in truth, Price and Budaj would handily have won a divorce from their defence for a lack of support, the skaters looking fatigued one minute, disorganized the next, befuddled the next.
The opposition jabbed holes in the blue-liners at will, pouncing on every rebound and planting themselves in the slot, untouched. Never this season has the Canadiens defence look so exposed.
Head coach Michel Therrien gave his netminders the hook in three consecutive games, the first time since October 2001 that three straight Habs starters have been yanked.
Even that statistic is a misleading, injuries suffered in 2001 by Jeff Hackett and José Theodore necessitating the changes.
The prodigious trashing of Price was unreasonable and misinformed, no matter that he waved at a few shots he’d like back.
One of the strengths of the 25-year-old’s game is his positional play. Almost never is Price lunging this way or that to make a save. Rather, he’s moving through his crease like an old table-hockey goalie with a steel rod up his back, sliding smoothly from post to post.
But in recent games, Price has been a circus acrobat, diving and scrambling across the crease to try, mostly in vain, to foil an opponent standing uncovered.
There was a bit of that Thursday on Tampa Bay’s second goal, Vinny Lecavalier standing remarkably open to tie the game 2-2 five minutes into the third period.
But Price was solid, generously aided by the iron net frame behind him, as he showed all of what’s expected of him — by himself, by his coaches and by the critics who again have found the fan-club membership cards that they dropped while clamouring off the bandwagon.
Perhaps most awkward about the Canadiens skid was its timing. Had the Habs turned in these results in, say, February, there would have been a lot of tongue-wagging and fussy angst. But this time, with the playoffs less than two weeks away, angst typically gave way to anger.
That was cured Thursday. Two goals from captain Brian Gionta, another by Alex Galchenyuk, fine work by Price and some creative line-shuffling by Therrien parked the Canadiens alone atop the Northeast by two points, the trailing Boston Bruins holding two games in hand.
Better yet, the Habs are now riding the momentum of a one-game winning streak, a sweet thing given a recent past that, to some, was damn near the end of the world.
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