Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Dealing With Expectations

It's amazing how things can change so much from one month to another. The Canadiens haven't put together a consistent stretch all year long. At the beginning of the year, they were winning games they should have lost. Lucky for them, they picked up 17 of a possible 20 points to begin the season and that's probably the main reason they remain in fifth place to this point despite being the coldest team in the NHL, 2-8 in their last ten games.

The Canadiens created so much hype with their phenomenal regular season last year. The playoffs were different, as both Boston and Philly exploited their lack of physicality and unwillingness to pay the price along the boards. After their second round exit, the offseason provided hope with the acquisitions of Alex Tanguay and Robert Lang along with a guy like Georges Laraque, who it seemed would make the Milan Lucics and Scott Hartnells of the league respect them.

The other side of it was the loss of two guys who had been around for a while, one coming off a career season and one off one of his worst campaigns, both UFAs.

I'm not going to say Michael Ryder would be enjoying comparable success here in Montreal to the great season he's having on a Boston team that looks destined for greatness. It's impossible to know and in all likelihood the change of scenery is one of the things that sparked Ryder's resurgence. Another factor was having a coach who believed in him in Claude Julien.

The other guy is Mark Streit. Streit put up 62 points last year while quarterbacking the top power play in the NHL. He took smart shots, did an excellent job of getting pucks in deep and pursuing them and played in virtually every role asked of him by the Habs coaching staff. He loved Montreal and looked crushed when it became clear he didn't fit in with the teams plan for their centennial season and onward. Streit moved on to a bad team in Long Island where he is revered by fans and teammates for what he is, one of the top offensive defencemen in the league and an NHL all-star.

With the Habs power play languishing at 24th in the league at a dismal 16.3% success rate, one can't help but miss Streit's under the radar modus operandi.

It might make it easier if Robert Lang's career wasn't likely over due to the brutal injury he suffered and Alex Tanguay not on the shelf for the foreseeable future. Those injuries are big for a Canadiens team that often looks young and overmatched these days.

The fact is that none of the factors experts and fans alike thought would propel the Canadiens to the top the Eastern Conference heap have come to pass.

The goaltending has been inconsistent at best and demoralizingly awful at times.

The veterans have often been hurt and not nearly as good as they were expected to be, from Kovalev to Tanguay and plenty more in between.

The young players who were supposed to take another step forward have remained in large part where they already were, and some have taken big steps back.

Sergei Kostitsyn has been disappointing but nowhere near as much so as Tomas Plekanec (29 goals last year), Chris Higgins (27) and Kovalev (35).

It's not all doom and gloom. The future looks bright with guys like Pacioretty coming up and performing but this year is starting to look more and more like another first or second round playoff exit, certainly nowhere near what was expected of this team going into this year.

Guy Carbonneau spoke of dealing with these expectations in a frank and what I believe to be totally accurate way yesterday after taking his team bowling instead of skating them again.

"I think the biggest (strain) is the pressure and anticipation from the people. We had a good year last year and from the start of (this) year, they saw us as Stanley Cup contenders. Maybe we're not as good as they think we are. It's a tough league to win in consistently. And it's going to get tougher and tougher until the end."

Randy Renaud, long time Montreal broadcaster and long-suffering Habs fan had this assessment yesterday, one that many Habs fans would agree with and one that's a little bit heartbreaking to read.

Montrealers and Habs fans everywhere might just love this team a little bit too much and love, as we all know, can be blinding.