The adversity the Canadiens have been facing in the past two weeks may end up working in their favour come playoff time. They will be the playoff club in the North Division that was subjected to playoff-style hockey for the past month of the season while the other three clubs essentially had a postseason spot in the bag.
You don’t think the last two games were character builders?
Despite playing the most arduous schedule of any prospective playoff team, the Canadiens have won five of of their last ten games. It really is no small feat for a club that right now is missing its top three scorers from the past three seasons, an assistant captain, their highly-decorated starting goalie, and minute-munching number-one defenceman. These are significant omissions.
Ottawa was a young, well-rested team on a roll, and up 2-0 with 14 minutes left in the game last night. Montreal was playing its fifth game in a week having come back from a two-goal deficit to score the last four goals in a critical win the night before versus Winnipeg that one may have assumed had sapped what little energy they had left.
I would not have been shocked to see the Canadiens mail it in and lose 3-0 or 4-0 last night, but much like the night before, the club found the intestinal fortitude to dig deep and score some crucial late goals to pretty much sew up a playoff spot.
These are character and team-building moments for a club. Playing playoff hockey the last month of the season…everyone slated to be back for the playoffs. You watch…the Leafs (or Oilers) will end up having their hands full.
Look at Columbus two years ago. Tampa coasted for the last month…Columbus played playoff-type games for several weeks. Columbus proceeded to sweep the heavily-favoured Lightning….a team that was picked by everyone to win not only that series, but the Cup as well after their record-setting regular season.
Check out the celebration after Bilbo Caufield scores his first NHL goal.
This was a substantial chemistry-building moment for a club facing plenty of adversity. One of its forwards on medical leave for presumably being broken down by the pressure…hearing and seeing the many condemnations of the club on both local and social media platforms, folks vilifying them for their recent “collapses” and not allowing them any leeway for having been stricken by the COVID protocol, injuries and a hectic schedule. Right now it feels like “Us against the world” for the club, and I have little doubt that they also want to “Win for Jo” right now as well.
The improbable comebacks of the last two nights will help make them a tightly-knit group. I can confirm this from personal experience.
Playing midget hockey in Pembroke, ON, we were at a late-season tourney in 1982 where they flooded the ice after two periods instead of at the start of the game. We were playing horribly, and trailed Canterbury 5-0. Our assistant coach came into the dressing room sloshed to the gills and told us in a rather impassioned speech that if we didn’t come back and win he’d “kick every one of our asses”. He was an old-school bricklayer with a reputation for fighting, so we took his speech at least semi-seriously.
We looked at each other and chuckled silently. We had just 12 minutes to do what he instructed…and what happened? We went out and scored six goals in 10 minutes, and won 6-5. I’ve never been more exhilarated in my life. I still remember our celebration, everyone jumping up and down and hugging each other at the game’s end and we hadn’t even won anything other than a tournament game that wasn’t even for the championship. It was a similar celebration to what I saw last night, and it bonded us. We ended up winning the Ottawa Valley championship in our league despite being the fourth-place team going into the playoffs, defeating the first- and second-place teams along the way.
Caufield has always been a popular teammate. He is unassuming and always smiling and laughing. I talked to him for an hour last fall and I can’t say I’ve come across a more jovial hockey player in my 35 years of interviews. The players were ecstatic for him, and even more relieved that they won. Let’s not forget that it’s a club that started the season with nine consecutive losses in overtime, and they have now won their last three. It was a team-bonding moment that can’t be overemphasized.
Sometimes it’s not a bad thing to face some adversity. Actually…most times. No other club in the league has been as scrutinized as the Canadiens in the past month – not even close. So if they do sneak into the playoffs…the script will be flipped. They won’t be the team facing pressure as they will not be favoured by anyone.
Perhaps even more importantly; they will be the team adding their emotional leader in Gallagher to a squad who in the past week has seen several new leaders emerge in his stead. Tyler Toffoli has scored six goals in his last seven games, several of them of the important variety that got the team back in games. Josh Anderson has been a bit snakebitten lately but not through a lack of effort. He has been a beast in his effort, forechecking and physicalness.
Five games in the span of a week? No problem for Nick Suzuki, who scored four goals and three assists and somehow looks to have found another gear in his skating speed at a critical time of year. I witnessed Suzuki put three junior teams on his back and carry them to improbable heights during his OHL career, so him stepping up when the season was on the line does not surprise me in the least, just as he did in August in helping to upset the Penguins. Suzuki may only be 21 years of age but he’s a leader. Toffoli, Anderson and Suzuki all stepped up in the leadership department this week when it was most needed, and that won’t disappear once Gallagher returns; it will only be enhanced.
Montreal staged impressive comebacks in back-to-back games without their captain and two assistants while presumably running on fumes. Maybe they aren’t a heartless bunch without Gallagher after all. Matter of fact – they just proved that they aren’t. It’s hard not to think this team is heading to the playoffs and will be inspired by several factors. They were counted out, and they proved the doubters wrong.
They were roasted when they were struggling; they most certainly deserved to be lauded after those high-character victories. No one better take them for granted in the playoffs.