The hockey gods are laughing now. They snicker in the still of Pittsburgh, chuckle in the dark corridors of NHL offices in New York and bellow in the wild streets of Montreal. They kept quiet for so long, so long that fans must have wondered whether they departed for good.
Had the sport changed completely, from team-first to star-centered? Were media-blessed stars like Alex Ovechkin(notes) and Sidney Crosby(notes) really able to take over and win on their own? Were the ghosts of the beautifully flawed old barns in Winnipeg and Chicago now chased away by fake noise in McArenas? Was the old NHL – the one so many grew up with – gone?
The Montreal Canadiens have spoken, and spoken loudly, for the truly great aspects of their sport. They are the eighth seed, and the 16th-best team coming into the playoffs, cobbled together by good defense and great goaltending. They do nothing fancy, nothing breathtaking, nothing highlight-ready. Try making a Gatorade commercial out of this: They rush to the net on offense; they rush to the net on defense. That’s pretty much it. The Habs shove. They forecheck. They dump and chase. They clear the zone. Simple. Lovely. Pure. Hockey.
We’ll hear how these Habs evoke the storied squads from decades past, but it’s only because of the sweaters. These guys are far more underwhelming, and far more lovable. There are no Rockets or Beliveaus or Lafleurs here. Just a Gomez, a Gorges, a Gionta, and a Gill. The superstar scorer is a 5-foot-9 spitfire, Michael Cammalleri(notes), who played college hockey at Michigan. The coach, Jacques Martin, was not good enough for the Florida Panthers. The Quebecois, so enamored of all the French-Canadians who enchanted the Forum for so long, now dance in les rues for a team surprisingly devoid of francophones. In the age of the transcendent sports icon, the Canadiens started this season without a captain. The hockey gods must love that.
The hockey bosses, meanwhile, must hate this. Good luck getting ratings on Versus if the Habs face the Sharks in the Stanley Cup Finals. Even the people who learned Ryan Miller’s(notes) name in February won’t know more than two names in that series. Get ready for the NHL to be out-watched by women’s volleyball. Again.
But you know what? Too bad. True fans know the NBA playoffs never make jaws drop like the NHL has this spring. The NBA never has No. 8 seeds beating the regular-season champs and then the defending champs, back to back, led by a slow giant named Hal with 50 stitches in his leg. True fans are tired of trying to expand the brand. Sick of trying to follow the puck? Don’t know what the Halak is going on out there? Fine. Bye. Enjoy LeBron James.
The rest of us will eat this up. Montreal, winners of Canada’s last Cup way back in 1993, with its suddenly-slap-happy fans naming their first-born sons Jaro, might even face Boston and its Wrath of Rask in the East final. It’s the most unoriginal Original Six matchup ever. Unless, of course, the Flyers come back from a 3-0 series deficit to beat the B’s, in what would be an even more improbable storyline than Montreal’s. An 8 vs. a 7 in a conference final would make the coolest kind of history.
The good people of Broad and Newbury streets will be pulling for their teams in the Eastern final – actually let’s make that the Wales final – but how many Americans will be cheering for – gasp – le bleu-blanc-et-rouge? How many die-hard puckheads will be pardoning their French when La Sainte Flannel allows an easy goal? The Canadiens were once the most despised team in hockey, the Yankees of the ice. Now, with an AHL call-up named P.K. Subban(notes) and a chrome-domed Alaskan nicknamed Gomer, they are downright adorable. They could be the greatest dynasty in the sport’s history … and the greatest underdog champion in the sport’s history.
This year began with a bunch of plucky Americans going up to Vancouver and winning over some Canadian hearts. Now, three months later, the Canadiens have become America’s team.
Oh how the hockey gods must be laughing at that.