APRIL 10, 2010

It was exactly one month ago,  April 10, 2010, that the Canadiens put the finishing touches on the 2009-2010 regular season. 

It was one month ago today, that the Canadiens salvaged a single point in a 4-3 overtime loss to the Toronto Maple Leafs at the Bell Centre, to salvage 8th place in the Eastern Conference of the NHL, and advance to post-season play.

It was one month ago today, that the Canadiens managed to salvage a point from a hockey game that came during a week to forget, following losses to the Carolina Hurricanes and New York Islanders, two teams going nowhere in the standings.

Despite their tailspin during the final week of the regular season, the Canadiens did manage to punch their ticket to post-season play. But it was BECAUSE of their tailspin, that the Canadiens finished 8th in the East, setting up the unenviable first-round matchup against the Washington Capitals.

The so-called hockey experts never gave the Habs a chance to win that series.  “Caps in three,” was the tongue-in-cheek prediction of some of these so-called hockey experts.  Well, the Canadiens proved these so-called hockey experts wrong.  And tonight, one month after stumbling their way into the playoffs, the Habs will have another chance to prove many of the so-called hockey experts wrong, yet again, if they manage to beat the Penguins at the Bell Centre and take this series back to Pittsburgh for a game seven.

Game seven, when anything can happen.  Game seven, when anything DID happen in the series against the Washington Capitals.  But first, the Canadiens need to get there.  The only way they can get there, is if they beat the Penguins tonight.  The math doesn’t get much simpler than that.

There’s a tendency on the part of some Habs fans to look at this last month of playoff hockey as a bonus from a team that very nearly failed to advance to post-season play.  There’s a sense that “no matter what happens tonight”, Habs fans can take pride in Montreal’s terrific playoff run. That may indeed be the case. In fact, it IS the case. But I don’t quite see it that way.  I prefer to look ahead to the NEXT 30 days, and not back at the LAST 30 days.

Because when you manage to upend the Washington Capitals in a seven game series and are on the verge of taking the defending Stanley Cup champions to a game seven, there’s more on the line than just nostalgia: on the horizon there’s a berth in the Stanley Cup semi-finals against, either the Boston Bruins or the Philadelphia Flyers.  How win-able a series would that be for the Canadiens? Very win-able. Win that series, and, lo and behold, the Canadiens find themselves battling for Lord Stanley’s mug.

First things first, however.

What’s it going to take for the Habs to win tonight?  A 40-50 shot performance.  Not by the Habs, mind you, but by the Penguins.  Because as we’ve seen time and time again this playoff season, Jaroslav Halak is at his best, when he’s busiest.  Saturday night, the Canadiens were busier than the Penguins in that department, outshooting the Pens 33-25, but coming out on the short end of the scoreboard in a 2-1 hockey game.

It would help if the Canadiens could find the back of the net more than once during the course of a hockey game.  It would be nice if someone like, say, Tomas Plekanec could play this game the way he did during the regular season, and in the first round against Washington.  If would be nice if someone like Benoit Pouliot could show the same spark, hustle and desire he showed when the Canadiens first picked him up from the Minnesota Wild at mid-season.  It would also be nice if Andrei Kostitsyn finally started earning that salary of his. Remember what a bargain Andrei was when Bob Gainey signed him to a three-year deal at $3.25 million per season? 

Tonight would be a good time to start earning that paycheck.

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