Habs overcoming adversity to reach mythic status
The ghosts have moved.
For years, the complaint about Montreal's Bell Centre has been that the "ghosts" of the venerable Montreal Forum had not made the move to the new building that opened its doors on March 16, 1996. Now, they are in full throat at the Bell Centre.
Need proof? How about all those Penguins shots that rang off the iron in Game 6? How about that sweet backhander from Mike Cammalleri? How about that goal off the stick of Jaroslav Spacek, who had been ailing and out of the picture? How about the super saves from Jaroslav Halak?
Few can complain about now that the Canadiens have become a team bordering on mythic proportions thanks to an inspiring Stanley Cup run that has seen the eighth-seeded team in the East knock off the top-seeded Washington Capitals and now are within a game of doing the same to the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins.
"It's reality," says Cammalleri, the smallish winger who leads the Stanley Cup Playoffs in goals with 11. "If you pinch yourself, you start staring around, and we can't stop now."
Not when the next achievement, a berth in the Eastern Conference Finals, is so tantalizingly close and will be determined one way or the other Wednesday night in Pittsburgh (7 p.m. ET, VERSUS, CBC, RDS).
"It is one of those years, but we've battled through it and learned a lot about ourselves," Scott Gomez said. "It's one of those years, but whoever is in the lineup, we'll go at it."
"I think that's just the way this group is. We're a tight group and we want to play for each other," said defenseman Jose Gorges, whose play against Sidney Crosby and Company has been huge in this series. "We want to go to war for each other. No one is satisfied with going home yet. We're not satisfied with what we've done and we want to keep playing. Guys are willing to do whatever it takes to get back in the lineup and help this team win."
Should we really be surprised? After all, these are the Montreal Canadiens, winners of 24 Stanley Cups and the team that has boasted arguably a wing of the Hockey Hall of Fame.
Actually, yes, we should be somewhat surprised because the current Canadiens have overcome a boatload of change and adversity to reach this point. In the playoffs, teams are used to dealing with adversity, it is part of the right of passage. But the Canadiens' defense has been ravaged by injury to the point it is teasing the bounds of reality to believe the series with Pittsburgh is going to Game 7.
Montreal's top defenseman, Andrei Markov, is out with a knee injury suffered against the Pens. Spacek returned from a virus for Game 6 and scored the winning goal. Hal Gill, the former Penguin who has formed a shutdown pair with Gorges, missed Game 6 with a laceration of his leg. But rookie P.K. Subban has joined the defense and has played like a seasoned veteran. Ryan O'Byrne also has been strong, and while Marc-Andre Bergeron is a minus-11, his work on the power play has been needed.
"No one really expected us to be here in the first place," O'Byrne said. "You can't play tentative. You have to play loose and enjoy the moment. There're a lot of guys in this room with a lot of pride and we're not ready to go home ready."
The Canadiens' ascent actually began last summer, but it has been a long, and at times painful process. After the 2008-09 season, the Canadiens allowed 10 free agents to move on, most notably Alex Kovalev, Saku Koivu and Alex Tanguay. In essence, the team changed its identity.
In their place, the Canadiens acquired three small forwards -- Cammalleri, Brian Gionta and Gomez -- for a lot of cash and seemingly bucking the trend to ice bigger players. There also was a new coach in Jacques Martin, but some of the same old problems in goal, where neither Halak or Carey Price was established as the No. 1 goalie.
As a result, the Canadiens weren't much to crow about during the regular season, eventually landing as the eighth seed in the Eastern Conference at 39-33-10. The regular season was so disappointing that GM Bob Gainey opted to resign and hand the job over to Pierre Gauthier. The legendary Habs were expected to be cannon fodder for Alex Ovechkin and Company in the first round.
But then Jaroslav Halak happened. The goalie drew comparisons to the legendary Ken Dryden as the Canadiens overcame a 3-1 deficit to oust the heavily favored Capitals. Today, Halak owns a 7-5 record, 2.45 goals-against average and .932 save percentage. His play belies those statistics though. Halak has been the motor that makes the Canadiens go, but his teammates have followed suit in shutting down some the NHL's top offensive stars.
"One thing that is a given in the playoffs is obstacles, and we're missing two key guys but, we've had other guys step up," said Dominic Moore, a late-season addition from Florida who has cemented a strong checking line with Tom Pyatt and Travis Moen. "It is team defense for a reason -- that is why everyone has to do their part."
Now, the Canadiens have taken the Penguins to Game 7. Can they do it again? Or are they pushing the envelope -- and reality -- to ponder the idea that the eighth-seeded team can pull off another monumental upset in Game 7?
"Game 7s, feel like a flip of the coin,” Penguins coach Dan Bylsma said.
And the Habs like their chances to see the coin fall their way. Chances are the ghosts will be pushing in the right direction.