Canadiens fans watching Game 6 on the Bell Centre Jumbotron react to their team’s loss to the Rangers in Game 6 of the Eastern Conference final on Thursday night.
Photograph by: Graham Hughes, THE CANADIAN PRESS
The car flags hung limp in the rain Friday morning. The chalked “Go Habs Go!” on a neighbour’s driveway down the street was beginning to wash away. The kids hurrying into school were less giddy, the weather as subdued as the mood.
The magnificent run that had riveted a city since that 5-4 win over the Tampa Bay Lightning on April 16 was over. There would be no appearance in a brutally difficult Stanley Cup final against either the Chicago Blackhawks or the Los Angeles Kings, no chance for the Canadiens to win that elusive 25th Cup.
There was no way to avoid telling my 8-year-old, who was sent to bed with the Habs trailing 1-0 and a period to play, that the team that had suddenly piqued his interest had not been able to find a way back. In the most critical game of the season, they looked absolutely drained and exhausted at Madison Square Garden, the collective tank empty, rookie goaltender Dustin Tokarski the only reason they hadn’t suffered a 5-0 embarrassment.
After that thrilling 7-4 ride at the Bell Centre Tuesday night in Game 5, everyone expected more, but even Brendan Gallagher — the prototype for the Energizer Bunny — looked worn down. Brandon Prust failed to provide the expected boost while returning from a two-game suspension, the club seemed to miss the reckless energy of Dale Weise and they generated as little to nothing as you can with the season on the line.
There is no shame in that. One fan wrote to me after the final game to say that the Canadiens were “disgraceful.” Nothing could be further from the truth. They battled three tough teams for six brutal weeks and came up two games short of the final, a mere 25 months after ending the 2011-12 season in complete disarray as the miserable reign of GM Pierre Gauthier trickled to an end.
Owner Geoff Molson’s hiring of GM Marc Bergevin brought about a sea change for this organization and in an astonishingly short time. Bergevin is the perfect GM for this city: outgoing, funny, brash, stylish and highly capable. First, he brought about the immediate turnaround during last year’s lockout-shortened season, then a 100-point campaign this year and the longest playoff run for the CH since the 1993 Cup.
In truth, this series was probably lost not Thursday, but way back on June 30, 2009, when former GM Bob Gainey acquired Tom Pyatt, Michael Busto and the regrettable and ruinously expensive Scott Gomez from the Rangers for Christopher Higgins, Pavel Valentenko, Doug Janik — and the rights to a young defenceman named Ryan McDonagh.
McDonagh, more than anyone else, is the reason the Rangers are moving on and the Canadiens are not. Pair him with P.K. Subban and Montreal has what would arguably be the best young defence in the league. Instead, McDonagh outplayed Subban in this series and fans here can only shake their heads and dream about what might have been.
If the Canadiens looked exhausted Thursday, they weren’t the only ones. Once it was clear the run was over, I was somewhat content to get my life back, to put an end to the late nights followed by the early mornings. But the playoffs weren’t going to go away. While waiting for a prescription to be filled at Pharmaprix, I was very annoyed by the booming SportsTalk radio show coming from somewhere, a fan insisting that “Bergevin has to stop messin’ around and find (David) Desharnais a big winger that can score.”
This chap, apparently, never heard of Max Pacioretty. The radio boomed on. And it boomed some more, so loud I could barely hear the woman at the cash. I paid, walked along the aisle toward the door and it stayed with me. I hurried on, out into the parking lot, the radio following me without mercy.
Then it dawned on me: It was my stupid smartphone. A radio app had somehow activated itself, the ghost in the machine, and I had entertained half the pharmacy from my pocket. No one complained. One more sign, I suppose, that we’re not yet quite ready to let go of the dream.
What is exhilarating to behold is the degree to which the Canadiens can still bring this city together like nothing else, as they did back in the days of Newsy Lalonde, Howie Morenz and Rocket Richard, when the Habs were the only thing the two solitudes could agree on.
In the infinitely complex mosaic of the 21st century city with its multitude of languages, religions, ethnicities and beliefs, the Canadiens remain the lingua franca of Montreal. We may not speak Pashtun, Urdu, Yoruba, Mandarin or even French and English — but we all speak Habs.
My Syrian neighbour across the street, burdened with the pain of his anguished homeland, found some distraction in the Canadiens’ quest. I know because we talked about it and because every time I glanced out the front window, I could see his big-screen TV tuned to the game. My Iranian communist friend, who pays slight attention to sports only during the World Cup, was watching it with his sons as I watched with mine.
Now the run is over — but what a run it was. It lit up a city, especially when the Canadiens took out the hated Boston Bruins. P.K. Subban and Carey Price, Dale Weise and Mike Weaver, Josh Gorges, Francis Bouillon and Alexei Emelin, Rene Bourque, Lars Eller, Brendan Gallagher and Dustin Tokarski, they were all part of almost every conversation for weeks. Thomas Vanek was a colossal disappointment, but almost everyone else made a solid contribution.
These things rarely progress in a straight line, but the Canadiens appear to have a solid foundation on which to build. Coach Michel Therrien, who has shown an ability to grow and learn in the job, has surely earned an extension. Some of the free agents will be gone, while others — including late-season acquisitions Weaver and Weise — should be retained. Subban will have to be signed at break-the-bank prices and Bergevin has to decide whether to bet that Andrei Markov can give him three more solid seasons.
Room has to be found on the roster for a trio of young defencemen: Nathan Beaulieu, Jarred Tinordi and Greg Pateryn, but you would hope to see Weaver back and it would not be a surprise if Therrien persuades Bergevin to give the veteran Bouillon one more year.
But those are stories for another day. Before noon Friday, the sun was out and the sky was blue, marked with a few scattered, fluffy white clouds. In bars and restaurants and supermarket checkout lines, we were repeating over and over the mantra of the day, the same thing we told our disappointed children in the morning:
“Wait till next year.”
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