So it’s over. Time to leave the carousel ride, step out of the bubble, squeeze in a little summer while there’s still time. (Just don’t plan a charcoal barbecue, because the world is fresh out of charcoal.)
The Canadiens did you proud, ladies and gentlemen. They kicked Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin to the curb in the play-in round, and they outplayed the top-seeded Philadelphia Flyers through six games in what was technically the first round of the playoffs, only to lose on bad bounces. They came this close to sweeping the state of Pennsylvania, a job they will now leave to Joe Biden on a far more important stage.
They found two star centremen for the future where not so long ago they had none. They figured out that their two leaders, Shea Weber and Carey Price, still have plenty in the tank when they’re rested and healthy.
They lost their head coach, Claude Julien, to chest paints and a stent procedure after a Game 1 loss – then came back to win Game 2, 5-0. After two dispiriting shutout losses, when they could have mailed it in and left the bubble, they came back to win Game 5 despite a horrendous game misconduct call on Jesperi Kotkaniemi and a stick to the face that broke Brendan Gallagher’s jaw.
They fell behind 2-0 and 3-1 in Game 6 and still battled back to win everywhere but on the scoreboard.
Yes, that’s the only place that counts. But if you aren’t feeling better about this team than you have at any time since the 2014 playoffs, you simply aren’t paying attention.
The Canadiens are good. And they’re going to get better.
After what seems like 50 years, the club now has not one superb young centremen but two. Kotkaniemi and Nick Suzuki outplayed their veteran counterparts through two pressure-packed series in the heat of August –and Suzuki put the capper on with a two-goal star turn in Game 6.
Suzuki’s hands are so sweet, it’s like he coats them with honey before games. Kotkaniemi, the gawky kid who seemed almost too frail for the game when he first arrived as an 18-year-old, now packs a wallop – if you don’t believe me, ask Travis Sanheim. He’s big, strong, smart and he packs a wicked shot when he chooses to let it go.
Then there’s Jake Evans, a long shot whose hockey smarts made Ryan Poehling an almost forgotten man through two rounds of postseason play. With Evans and veteran Phil Danault (now in his ideal spot as a third-line checking centre) the hole in the donut is completely filled and Poehling could conceivably become trade bait during the offseason.
When Poehling was drafted, the Canadiens were in desperate need of centremen. Today, it’s the deepest position on the depth chart and he is highly expendable unless the club believes he can fit in as a big, strong winger.
A bigger puzzle is Max Domi. Domi, as someone mentioned Friday night, played like a man with his pants on fire when he first came here. He was all over the ice, busting his butt on every shift. But after a decidedly so-so season in Montreal, he melted like an ice cube on an August sidewalk this summer.
What happened? Was it contract anxiety? Domi is a restricted free agent who was coming off a mediocre second campaign with the Canadiens and had a lot to prove, so his playoff no-show is going to cost him dollars no matter how this plays out. But as a player who was risking more than almost anyone else because of his health issues, Domi might have had bigger worries on his mind.
Bottom line, GM Marc Bergevin has all the leverage in talks with the Domi camp. He gave up essentially nothing to get Domi but the young man is still a prime asset, based on his 2018-2019 season, and Bergevin isn’t going to give him up for nothing.
Bergevin could also make things interesting by giving an offer sheet to Mikhail Sergachev, the superb young defenceman sent to Tampa for Jonathan Drouin. It’s mouth-watering to imagine the young Russians Sergachev and Alexander Romanov patrolling the blue line for the Habs next season but Julien BriseBois cannot afford to let Sergachev get away, so it’s more probable that he trades a veteran forward or two.
Which brings us back to Bergevin. For all the complaints about the man, he has plugged the gaping hole at centre ice, strengthened the defence, won two huge trades for Alex Galchenyuk and Max Pacioretty and left his team with both a bundle of draft picks and plenty of cap room going into whatever the next season is going to be.
And his coach, Claude Julien, did a superb job preparing a 24th-place team for the unexpected gift of a postseason run.
So there we are. It’s rare that a team leaves its fans smiling as they bow out of the playoffs but the Canadiens have done it. Handed an almost unheard of opportunity to atone for a bad season, they showed talent and heart and, with a little luck, they would have made it at least to the second round of the playoffs.
When you’ve been doing this for a while, the playoff series all run together. Not this one. It was unforgettable, all of it. From Kotkaniemi’s muscles to Suzuki’s hands to Price’s saves and Gallagher still chirping despite a mouthful of blood.
All we can do now is thank the Habs for a brilliant distraction in a brutal year – and take Alain Vigneault off the Christmas list.