Back on April 10th the Montreal Canadiens secured the 8th and final playoff spot in the Eastern Conference with a less than inspiring 4-3 OT loss to the rival Toronto Maple Leafs. This followed a 5-2 loss to the Carolina Hurricanes, and a 4-3 shootout loss to the New York Islanders. That’s right – at a crucial time of year when points were at an absolute premium – the Habs only managed 2 out of a possible 6 points against non-playoff-bound teams. Because they stumbled so badly down the stretch they were faced with the unenviable task of taking on the powerhouse Washington Capitals in the first round of the playoffs, a team that had finished a whopping 33 points ahead of them in the standings. Pitted against the firepower of Alexander Ovechkin, Alexander Semin, Mike Green and Nicklas Backstrom the Habs were badly outmatched on paper, and most pundits were picking the Habs to bow out in 4 or 5 games. After the Caps won three of the first four games and pushed the Habs to the brink of elimination, it looked like those predictions would come true. With the overwhelming odds facing the Habs, not even the most diehard Canadiens fan would have dared dream their beloved team could potentially win the 2010 Stanley Cup.
What a difference a month makes.
In the remainder of that first round series Habs netminder Jaroslav Halak put on a goaltending performance as good as any seen by Jacques Plante, Ken Dryden or Patrick Roy, stymieing the Caps guns again and again, and helping the Habs do the unthinkable: coming back from a 3-1 deficit to win the series in 7 games.
After sending Ovechkin and crew packing the road didn’t get any easier for the Habs. The 6th seeded Boston Bruins and the 7th seeded Philadelphia Flyers both won their respective first round match-ups. As a result the Habs drew the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins as their second round opponent – a team featuring twin superstars in Sidney Crosby and Evgeni Malkin, and one that had plenty of playoff experience after two consecutive Stanley Cup Finals.
Once again the Habs were huge underdogs, and once again hockey prognosticators were picking them to come out on the losing end. Those opinions didn’t change even after the Habs managed to take game one in Pittsburgh 3-1. Yes, they were up 1-0 in the series, but the victory had come at a terrible price as their top defenseman, Andrei Markov, suffered a torn ACL, putting him out for the remainder of the series.
Yet, as is often the case when a team loses a star player during a playoff run the rest of Markov’s teammates stepped up their games to fill the enormous void left by the star blueliner. P.K. Subban, a rookie defenseman, who up until the end of the Washington series had been plying his trade as a member of the Hamilton Bulldogs of the AHL, quickly made Habs fans forget about the absence of Markov, logging huge minutes and playing on both the powerplay, and the penalty kill. Hulking defenseman Hal Gill and his unheralded partner Josh Gorges continued to play the shutdown role they were so effective at in the first round, turning their focus on Malkin and Crosby, frustrating the Pens’ superstars and keeping them from being a factor in the series.
Jaroslav Halak continued to shine in net, as the collapsing style of the Canadiens saw plenty of rubber directed his way. Time and again he stole what looked to be sure goals off the sticks of Penguins snipers. The Canadiens d-men, led by Hal Gill, blocked nearly as many shots as Halak did, and as the series wore on it was evident that the Pens were getting more and more frustrated.
However, as good as the Habs were at keeping the puck out of their net, they needed some offense, and Mike Cammalleri provided plenty of that. Cammalleri was great in the first round against Washington, netting 5 goals in 7 games. He was even better against Pittsburgh, and it seemed like every time he got a golden chance the puck ended up in the back of the net. All in all he tallied 7 goals in the series, giving him 12 in the playoffs, the most of any player.
The series went back and forth, and once again the Habs fought back from the brink of elimination to force a game 7. Pittsburgh seemed to have to clear advantage, playing at home, and with the experience of having won game 7 of the Stanley Cup Finals against Detroit the previous year in their back pocket. However, once again the Habs defied the odds, stunning the crowd at the Mellon Arena as they jumped out to a 4-0 lead partway through the second period. To the Penguins’ credit, they never gave up, but ultimately the hole was just too deep to dig out of, and when the dust settled on game 7 the Habs had emerged victorious, ending the Pens’ dreams of consecutive Stanley Cups after handing the defending champs a humbling 5-2 loss in their home building.
With clutch victories over two of the NHL’s best teams under their belts, the Habs have suddenly gone from a huge underdog to a team that has a very legitimate chance to win the 2010 Stanley Cup. Though they don’t know whether they will face the Bruins or the Flyers in the semi-finals yet, they do know they will face a team that finished significantly closer in the regular season standings to them than either Washington or Pittsburgh did. If Halak can continue his hot play, and the rest of the team continues to buy into the defensive system that has made them so successful there is a good chance they can advance to the Stanley Cup Finals and a possible date with destiny.
So, can the Habs win their 25th Stanley Cup this year, ending a 17 year drought for the franchise? They still have a long uphill climb ahead of them, and the Flyers/Bruins, San Jose Sharks/Chicago Blackhawks will certainly have something to say about it, but the notion of the Canadiens hoisting the 2010 Stanley Cup certainly doesn’t seem anywhere near as far-fetched as it did back on April 10th.