Thursday, May 13, 2010

Habs: Hooked on a Feeling

Les Habitants are winning hearts and minds with their one-for-all brand of Playoff hockey.

When Jacques Martin was hired to the helm of the most scrutinized coaching position in hockey last June, a trip to they playoffs for the Montreal Candiens wasn't out of the question. Nor was it a guarantee. Martin, a former teammate of Iron Mike Keenan in college, and a long time coach of the Ottawa Senators during the late 90's and early 00's has taken teams to the brink of the Stanley Cup finals, but he'd also struggled at the helm of the Florida Panthers over the last few years.

But none of that matters anymore.

What is happening this spring in Montreal is that the fabled red, white, and blue sweater appears to be working it's magic again, and no matter how glorious the Habs past might be, there is no time like the present - especially this year.

After a stunning come from behind upset of the NHL's no. 1 ranked juggernaut Washington Capitals, the Canadiens buckled up and relentlessly pursued their style of collapsible defense, intrepid puck support, Patrick Roy-style clutch goaltending, and timely scoring against the defending Stanley Cup champs and their nationally deified poster boy for hockey sainthood, Sidney Crosby.

After last nights lopsided 5-2 victory, the last NHL game ever to be played in Mellon Arena a.k.a the Igloo, the Habs are half way to the most improbable Stanley Cup run that the NHL will have ever seen.

How have they done it? How has a team of forwards that are "too small" and defenceman that are "too minus" turned a city that has too many expectations into a frenzied and passionate band of chest thumping hockey craving lunatics?

They've done it the way all Jacques Martin coached teams have always done it. Except this time they seem to be doing it just a little bit better, and without the help of big-time stars like Daniel Alfredsson. They've done it with a refreshing blend of selfless team hockey that has gone unmatched thus far in the NHL's post season.

The Habs have become masters of doing the little things during these playoffs. On paper it shouldn't be happening, but on the ice, remarkably, it is.

If talent alone was responsible for playoff success, the Canadiens would have bowed out long ago to the Capitals. But we all know that talent starts to diminish in efficacy when the NHL's second season begins. There are intangibles that start to supersede, and Montreal has taken these intangibles to a whole new level.

Puck support on the walls has allowed this band of diminutive forwards to gain control of the game against two of the NHL's most powerful opponents. A disciplined style of defense that collapses together and is committed to keeping the puck in front of it has frustrated the likes of Ovechkin, Semin, Crosby, and Malkin. Uncanny positional play has allowed them to break out of the zone under pressure, and to eliminate odd man rushes.

And I haven't even gotten to the shot blocking.

Or the goaltending.

For a team like Montreal to find itself in the Conference Finals, everything has to be clicking. It's been 17 years since Patrick Roy and Vincent Damphousse brought Montreal it's 24th Stanley Cup. Last year's 100th anniversary team was a complete flop, and the Mystique of the The Habs appeared to finally be dying, just as the Old Montreal Forum (the original home for all 24 Cup banners) had died.

But Martin's band of warriors are proving once again that hockey is a team sport with roots in discipline, support, and valor. The prettiest pucksters in the Eastern Conference have all learned first hand.

Meanwhile, while we were all waiting for Sid and the Gang of Penguins to finally close the door on Montreal, a 5'9" hard nosed counter puncher named Cammalleri was tying the team record for goals in a single playoff series. He's now inscribed in Canadiens lore along with others to achieve the feat (Richard, Believeau, Lafleur, Geoffrion, and Bonin).

Maybe it's magic. Or it could be that Jacque Martin is finally getting what he deserves for all those heartbreaking playoff failures and near misses in Ottawa. Maybe it's the sweater, the city, and the energy.

Or it could simply be some good old fashioned hockey.

Whatever it is, it ain't done yet.