Wyshynski: Ten reasons to root for the Montreal Canadiens, I guess

The Montreal Canadiens are eight wins away from capturing the Stanley Cup. One Canadian team was going to make it out of the North Division playoffs. No one expected it would be them. Some of us are a little bummed about it, including me.

I’ve picked against Montreal in both of its series wins, including predicting that they would lose in six games to the Winnipeg Jets instead of eliminating them in four. My pick, and those of 12 others, were recently immortalized on TikTok by the Canadiens themselves:

I’ve been accused of having some kind of bias against the city of Montreal, which simply isn’t true. In fact, my grandfather lived there for many years. I love any city that can feel like Paris without having to actually go to Paris. Sure, the bagels are hopelessly overrated, but you can get smoked meat and poutine at all hours of the day. I also think one of professional sports’ greatest sins was taking away a sure-thing World Series victory from the 1994 Montreal Expos with the players’ strike that season.

Je t’aime Montréal!

I’ve been accused of having some kind of bias against the Canadiens, which simply … well, it’s kind of true. I’m allergic to self-referential aggrandizement, something that bothered me when the Habs entered the seventh year of their centennial anniversary celebration. While I acknowledge the necessity, I loathe their myopic Francophonic hiring practices. They can be a little boring in a league that currently isn’t.

But they’re not all bad. They’ve kept Youppi! gainfully employed.

Honestly, my biggest problem with the Canadiens these days is that they’re the beneficiary of incredible, unparalleled good fortune that many of their fans refuse to acknowledge, or at least give substantial weight in explaining their postseason success. Witness:

  • The Toronto Maple Leafs losing John Tavares in the first period of Game 1 after his head collided with the leg of Montreal winger Corey Perry. Like a phantom limb after an amputation, the Leafs won the next three games but then lost two overtime games and mustered a single goal in their Game 7 loss.

  • After eliminating one team that was missing a star center after Game 1, Montreal — whose thinnest position was, in fact, down the middle — watched Winnipeg center Mark Scheifele take himself out of the series on an idiotic hit that injured Jake Evans, which resulted in a four-game suspension. The Jets would last only three more games, their offense adrift without the engine of their top line.

  • Montreal making the playoffs in the first place. The North Division was awash in mediocrity. The Canadiens were as close to fifth place as they were to third place, and had the worst goal differential (minus-9) of any playoff team this season. Luckily, they had the hapless Calgary Flames, the rebuilding Ottawa Senators and whatever you’d call the 2021 Vancouver Canucks to cushion any fall down the standings. They made the playoffs by default.

But once they got there, they’ve done everything they’ve needed to do. They were unwavering against an emotionally fragile Leafs team. They were consistent in their game against a flailing Jets team whom Connor Hellebuyck couldn’t carry through another round. Montreal found its identity as others questioned theirs. You have to respect that.

Yeah, I said respect Montreal.

Look, I’m trying. I want to like this team. They’re a great story, a true underdog rolling through teams and winning “the right way.”

One of the suggested exercises for those seeking a positive mindset is to make a list of the things that make you happy. So, here are 10 reasons to root for Montreal, I guess:

1. ‘Ambition without the weight of expectation’

It’s hard to separate the current incarnation of the Canadiens from the franchise’s history. Their next Stanley Cup will be their 25th. They’ve had more championship seasons than the Minnesota Wild have had … seasons.

Like the New York Yankees or Los Angeles Lakers, it’s hard to cast a successful and well-funded franchise as a scrappy underdog, which is one of my struggles in embracing this team.

I asked actor/director Jay Baruchel, a Canadiens superfan, what I should love about the Habs. He told me that this Montreal team has “ambition without the weight of expectation,” a concept he wrote about in his book “Born Into It” about his hockey fandom.

His theory is that the team’s incredible history ends up suffocating the players and creating outlandish expectations for the fans. But not this year. This year, he said they have “youth, speed, daring and hustle.” They wear the sweater, but don’t yet feel the weight of the fabric.

(“Also, let me never reference my own book again. Forgive me,” he added.)

I’ve already paid my penance for calling Price an overrated goalie whose reputation was established playing behind one of the greatest assemblages of talent in hockey history on Team Canada. I still think he coasts on reputation in the regular season: Price is 36th in goals saved above average (24.6) since 2017, tied with the much less heralded James Reimer.

But as a postseason goalie, Price is every bit the goalie god his defenders worship: He leads the NHL with a .935 save percentage and a 1.88 goals-against average in 21 playoff games since 2017.

He’s never lost a playoff game when Montreal has scored at least three goals (16-0). That’s ridiculous. All hail Playoff Price.

3. They beat the Leafs

The Tavares injury, loss of budding American star Auston Matthews from the playoffs, and the fact that I picked them to win the Stanley Cup aside … it’s abjectly hilarious that the Canadiens were the ones who sent the Leafs to their latest postseason disaster.

We’ve reached yet-to-be-measured levels of humiliation when a team loses a Game 7 to its archrival, and then the single most identifiable piece of architecture in the city is drenched in its tormentor’s colors:

The epitome of a “hate to play against him, but would take him on my team in a millisecond” player. The Canadiens look like a different team with him in the lineup after looking listless near the end of the regular season without him. Also does a mean “Jim Halpert as Dwight Schrute” impression.

5. Regular season vs. playoff success

There’s a theory gaining popularity that the NHL is a place where teams can thrive in the regular season on skill alone, but they need a full complement of players who are not terrible to win in the playoffs, where depth matters most. The three eliminated teams in the North Division were decidedly skill-first teams, even though Toronto made its best effort to pad the lineup with veterans in grunt roles.

The Canadiens have gotten points from 19 (!) different players and goals from 12 different players through 11 games. Maybe the regular season just wasn’t for them.

A rookie listed at 5-foot-7, he’s the most entertaining player in the lineup, although Nick Suzuki comes close. It’s just a shame he didn’t get in the lineup sooner, as noted by hockey fan and fellow Badger J.J. Watt:

7. Old guy going for the Cup

Every postseason, there is a collection of veteran players whom fans can rally behind in their pursuit of a first Stanley Cup that lends validation to the NHL legacies.

The Habs have a couple of old guys who have rings (Eric Staal and Corey Perry) and one who does not: defenseman Shea Weber, 35, who has played 1,038 career games without ever having even appeared in the conference final. As captain, he’d be the first one to touch the Cup, no less.

The Canadiens general manager has been “fired” annually by both fans and pundits alike, and yet he’s remained on the job since 2012.

What a ride it’s been: Hanging on to one coach for too long (Michel Therrien) and firing one too quickly (Claude Julien); trading away star players (P.K. Subban, Max Pacioretty); trying to fill his hole at center by attempting to convert wingers to the middle; and then going on an offseason spending spree that saw him acquire Tyler Toffoli, Josh Anderson, Perry and backup goalie Jake Allen, all of whom have worked out quite well this season.

There’s a mad scientist aspect to this guy that I’ve always admired. Like his wardrobe, he’s never boring.

9. I’ll just pretend they’re the ’95 Devils

A team enrages opponents with a fundamentally strong, positional defensive system in front of excellent goaltending. Those around the league openly worry that if this team wins the Stanley Cup, it could create a trend in a copycat league that would have teams moving away from the kind of offensive hockey that’s made the NHL so entertaining in recent years.

I grew up a Devils fan. I saw them sweep a superior Detroit Red Wings team to win the Stanley Cup, and then returned to celebrate at a parking lot parade at the Meadowlands. Everyone said they were boring and killing hockey. It never felt that way after a playoff win. Seeing another team forging this kind of path — albeit a less trappy one — kinda hits me in the nostalgia feels.

10. Finally, they’re a respite

I asked Julian McKenzie, a podcaster and hockey writer, why I should like this Montreal team, and he put it in terms I hadn’t considered.

“This success is happening at the same time as their home province is reopening due to COVID,” he said. “The premier, François Legault, has mentioned the Habs during COVID briefings. I think it’s clear some people are rallying behind them as a distraction from the horrible COVID reality.”

McKenzie said as he walked away from Game 4’s win over the Jets, he saw fans running around in the streets celebrating, whereas they were empty only a few months ago.

This Montreal run may not be what I wanted. It might not be what you wanted. It might not ultimately serve the best interests of the sport as much as, say, having Auston Matthews or Connor McDavid in the final four might.

But it means something special to a lot of people who’ve needed some special in their lives after the past year. That’s something you can root for, I guess.

Go Habs Go.

Jersey Fouls of the week

A couple of Fouls from Nassau Veterans Memorial Coliseum and Game 6 between the Bruins and Islanders.

This appears to be an “Ernst & Young” New York Islanders jersey, with the year “2021” stitched across the entire back of the sweater, which is a choice. The continued availability of ampersands for jersey nameplates is a chief catalyst for Jersey Fouls.

Meanwhile …

Quick summary: Bruins coach Bruce Cassidy had a rant after Game 5 about how the referees bought into the Islanders’ narrative that they’re a squeaky-clean team, and that led to a disparity in penalties in that game. “I think they sell a narrative over there that it’s more like the New York Saints, not the New York Islanders,” he said.

This led to many Saints-related shenanigans at Nassau Coliseum for Game 6, from chants to fans showing up with halos to this Islanders fan in a New Orleans Saints No. 13 jersey, repurposed into one for New York star Mathew Barzal.

Is it a Foul? Nope. It falls under the Protest Jersey provision. This fan can come marching in with this anytime.

Winners and losers of the week

Winner: New Orleans Saints

Kudos to the NFL’s Saints for getting in on the Stanley Cup playoffs fun and briefly becoming an Islanders fan account.

Loser: NHL officiating

Lost in all the “New York Saints” stuff was the fact that Game 5 was a horribly officiated game and the Bruins had every right to protest. They absolutely controlled the early part of that game and dominated zone time. The idea that the Islanders, who were dominated in puck possession, would receive three power plays before the Bruins had even one was a joke.

Winner: NHL Department of Player Safety

The department scored a win when Colorado Avalanche center Nazem Kadri‘s eight-game suspension was upheld by neutral arbitrator Shyam Das. Unlike when he knocked down the 20-game suspension for Capitals winger Tom Wilson down to 14 games in 2018, Das said the Kadri suspension was in keeping with precedent and not an attempt by the NHL to invent a new mathematical standard through which to hand out significant suspensions.

Combine that with the harsh four-game ban on Mark Scheifele for his injurious hit on Jake Evans of the Canadiens, and there were far fewer critics claiming that the DoPS wouldn’t throw the book at significant infractions in the playoffs.

Loser: Mark Scheifele

“I thought I was going to be tried to be shut down by Phillip Danault. Instead it was the Department of Player Safety that shut me down. So that definitely sucks,” said Scheifele, after his completely unnecessary hit on an empty-net goal effectively removed the Jets’ top center from the rest of their second-round series.

His continued befuddlement on why his decision to wallop Evans was so frowned upon is rather disappointing. “I would’ve loved an answer from [the department of player safety] of what would’ve been a better thing to do.”

Oh, I don’t know, maybe make even the slightest attempt at using your stick instead?

Winner: Victor Hedman

The Lightning defenseman did not have a great season by his lofty standards. He didn’t have a better season than several defensemen who were up for the Norris Trophy this year. But with 45 points, the glow from his MVP performance last postseason and four straight nominations, Hedman earned a fifth straight this week ahead of very deserving defensemen like Charlie McAvoy of the Bruins, Dougie Hamilton of the Carolina Hurricanes and others. His reputation preceded him, to be sure.

Loser: Matt Grzelcyk

Not to single anyone out for the Bruins’ Game 6 loss, but the Boston blueliner had one of the most brutal games for any defenseman we’ve seen in these playoffs. He had a pair of turnovers that led directly to Islanders’ goals, and was a minus-3 for the night. This series might have been a different story with a healthy Brandon Carlo and Kevan Miller back there to calm things down, because Grzelcyk certainly didn’t.

Winner: Renee Hess

I continue to be in awe of the growth and reach of Renee Hess’s Black Girl Hockey Club. Hess has also been named one of three finalists for the NHL’s Willie O’Ree Community Hero Award. If she wins, she will receive $25,000. I can’t think of anyone who better personifies that award and the spirit of bringing as many people as we can to feel welcomed to this sport we love.

Puck Headlines

  • Fans in the Canadian town of Cochrane have been warned by Fire Inspector Jeff Avery not to burn their NHL jerseys out of frustration. “Knowingly burning something, that’s arson. There is a chance of you setting something else on fire beside the jersey or setting your own clothes on fire. You’re just increasing your own chances of hurting yourself.”

  • We are witnessing the golden age of Lightning hockey. “Time will tell if this Lightning core will be discussed in the same breath as the Chicago dynasty or the Pittsburgh back-to-back teams, but this group is on the cusp of being in that rarified air. Securing another final four spot reinforces this mindset, but the job isn’t done yet.”

  • Taya Currie became the first female player ever chosen in the Ontario Hockey League Priority Selection draft Saturday. “Treat me like a normal player. Don’t think of it as a girl, that I stand out. I want to be a normal teammate to all the boys. I want to be a family with them.”

  • There’s ANOTHER Makar?!

  • Islanders owner Jon Ledecky on the new UBS Arena: “When Lou [Lamoriello] gave the players a tour, they puffed their chest up. They realized where they’re going and they want to go in really strong. They’re leaving this iconic place they love. But they know they’re coming here and they’re expected here to compete for the Stanley Cup every year. We put a billion two [$1.2 billion] into the facility, privately financed, to show the players, ‘You’ve got the best, go out there and try to win the Cup.'”

  • In praise of Mark Stone. “It’s all hockey IQ, angles, and never putting yourself in poor positions where you are in a foot race because you didn’t take a better angle. He’s got elite, elite hockey sense, and that allows him to be that effective both offensively and defensively,” said Pete DeBoer.

In case you missed this from your friends at ESPN

We’re recapping every episode of Quest for the Stanley Cup on ESPN+, with Episode 1 featuring Jon Cooper’s amazing cigars.


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