The Montreal Canadiens should make a short-term spelling change in their nickname. For the rest of the NHL playoffs, they should be Canadians — the rallying point for hockey’s alleged and aggrieved birthplace (and home of the McKenzie Brothers, of course).
While hockey outposts such as Tampa Bay, Carolina and Los Angeles have all sipped success in the past decade, no Canadian team has hoisted the Stanley Cup since Montreal in 1993. Rarely have the odds of ending that drought looked so grim. For the first time since 1973, only one Canadian team even made the playoffs.
Toronto collapsed late, losing eight straight and 12 of its final 14 games. Vancouver imploded like its combustible coach, John Tortorella. Ottawa and Edmonton underachieved. Winnipeg also overachieved, which isn’t saying much, and Calgary is rebuilding.
That leaves Montreal, the No. 3 seed from the Atlantic Division, to carry the nation’s torch and shoulder its growing angst.
“Hopefully, that means more Canadians will be cheering for us,” said Montreal center Daniel Briere, who set up the game-winning goal in overtime of Game 1 and drew a penalty that led to the first goal in Game 2 of his team’s first-round series against Tampa Bay this week. “We showed a lot of character this season. I think this is a team to be proud of.”
That’s all well and good, but Briere knows character doesn’t mean as much as championships in the city with the most titles in NHL history.
“In Montreal, hockey is religion, so there’s a lot of pressure when you play here,” said Briere, who grew up a Canadiens fan in Gatineau, Quebec and signed a two-year, free-agent deal with Montreal in the offseason. “Everything is analyzed and over-analyzed — every mistake, every play. That just comes with the territory.”
Former Montreal coach Scotty Bowman said it’s impossible to escape the sense of duty you feel when you’re part of the Canadiens’ storied organization.
“Everywhere you go, people want to talk to you about the team,” said Bowman, who won five Stanley Cups in eight seasons as Montreal’s coach from (1971-79). “Most of them are very nice and tell you ‘good job;’ some of them want to know what the heck you were thinking when you made a certain decision.”
And when a player doesn’t live up to expectations, he can get run out of town on a rail. Just ask Phoenix Coyotes center Mike Ribeiro, who played parts of his first six NHL seasons with Montreal before GM Bob Gainey traded him to Dallas because he was dissatisfied with Ribeiro’s production, work ethic and party-boy reputation.
“I’m sure the whole city wanted to get rid of me,” Ribeiro said. “It’s different there than anywhere else. When they’re not happy with you, you know it. You hear it everywhere you go.”
It’s probably too much to expect these Canadiens to win the Cup. Boston is the clear favorite in the Eastern Conference while Pittsburgh has all that firepower. The Western Conference is stacked with elite clubs that possess more skill and more brawn than the smallish Canadiens.
It’s also hyperbole to suggest that an entire nation will rally around its lone remaining team and forget the bitter rivalries that have been forged over the years.
“A lot of sour fans are probably going to root against us,” goalie Carey Price told reporters.
But as each year passes without a Cup, and as the memories of the glory years fade further and further into the past, the Montreal fan base grows more restless and less rational in its hopes and expectations. And with the Canucks removed from their customary perch, and the Maple Leafs out of the spotlight for a few precious months, a nation’s eyes are on Montreal as it takes a 2-0 series lead on the Lightning back to Bell Centre.
“I don’t know how far we can push this because we’re still finding out about this team,” Briere said. “At the beginning of the year, most experts gave us no chance of making the playoffs, but we overcame a lot of obstacles to get this far.
“We’ll just have to ride it out and see where it goes, but I don’t think we’re under any more pressure than usual just because we’re the last Canadian team.”
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