With every passing year, the Canadiens jersey signifies a more daunting experience.
Fans are adjusting to a squirming sensation; restless in the face of a new brand; a historically winning franchise that doesn't win as often as it used to is now a storied franchise with fewer stories to tell. If not fewer, than different.
Over what is now suddenly 17 years, a mounting collection of losses is turning the face of the franchise, slowly. Transforming the Canadiens brand into apologetic mediocrity. Wearing this jersey today may compels the player to reflect: "We know we should be better, but this is what we're capable of for now". The logo that used to make things easier just because it was there is now making life harder.
That slow transformation will produce nerves out of winning. As if winning were now so unlikely, so out of place, that you become focused on not losing your footing. The winning stance becomes so foreign that you don't know what to do with it once you're there and you're terrified to let it escape your grip. And that's when the errors come, when the grip loosens and the story turns. It's an unravelling and heart breaking experience.
It's happened often since the team's last title.
These are the notable falls from grace.
In 1996, Montreal took the first 2 games at Madison Square Garden, against the odds. They came home and lost Game 3, the inaugural playoff game at the Bell Centre, in front of the largest crowd the team had ever seen in the post-season. Playing well over their heads, that loss was enormous because it pierced their swagger. They simply couldn't recuperate the momentum. By the sixth and final game in Montreal, the Rangers had run them out of the building.
In 1998, after the Habs beat the Penguins in the first round (a series that saw Turner Stevenson basically expel Jaromir Jagr from play), the team faced the Sabres in the second round. The held leads often during the series, but were scored on consistently seconds after they had tallied. The 1997 team could not build on the momentum they constantly created for themselves and amazingly lost in 4 games. They simply choked in the 4 games, having outplayed the Sabres by a wide margin. Coach Ruff recalls that series as being too hard on his team and points to it as the reason the Sabres fell to the Caps in the next round.
In 2002, after having beaten a superior Boston team in the first round, the Habs held a 2-1 lead against Carolina heading into the fourth game. Winning 3-0 in the third with 10 minutes left, the team managed to fall into one of the strangest abysses you've ever seen. In an all too familiar storyline, the Canes scored 3 straight in the third and won the game early in overtime. The Canes won the next three, capping the 4-win comeback with an 8-2 rout of the Habs in Montreal. It was probably the most monumental breakdown the city had ever seen. This series more that any other created the swivel that shifted the franchise in a different light. It made fans realize that history could no longer rightfully repel these storylines.
In 2004, after beating the Bruins in an epic series, they were swept by the Lightning in the second round.
In 2006, history repeats itself, as the Habs lose the series to the Canes after winning the first 2 on the road. The first loss creates a pending sense of collapse. They don't win another game.
In 2007, the team misses the playoffs on the last night of the season after blowing a 2-goal lead against Toronto with seconds left to play in the second period.
In 2008, the conference leading Habs barely survive a first round series against Boston, but come out strong in Game 1 against the Flyers. A loss to Philadelphia once again spells the end of a playoff run and Montreal loses 4 in a row. In game 5 at home the team sees their 3-0 lead in the second period evaporate in less than 10 minutes.
To win in the playoffs, you have to be resilient enough to absorb the ups and downs in a series. You have to have that inner fortitude that allows you to roar back in the wake of defeat. In the past 17 years, only one team managed to win a see-saw battle that is almost compulsory in the road to a championship. That's the team that rallied from 1-3 against the Bruins to take the series from the Bruins on the road in Game 7. It's unfortunate that they never won another game.
What happened on Saturday night is proving that this team is still writing from these pages of anxiety and unease in the construct of adversity. A 4-1 lead with seconds left in the second frame. A chance to go up an impossible 2-0 against a giant. It was the type of disheartening collapse that rips the emotion right out of the unconditional fan. What does it do to the players?
It has become almost impossible to win here. It used to be impossible to lose, at least to lose for a long time. In the end, the normal balance usually came to the fore with the Cup popping up every now and then, even with second tier teams. Today, no more. The losses are denting the team and shaping a new mindset: "We're winning and it scares us to death to lose what we've got". It's called unusual winning. Teams geared to win this way do very well when trailing. They're familiar with those emotions, they're charged by the ease of that familiarity. They've been there often, because losing is almost where they belong, so they know what to do to climb out of it. But once they're there, push them ever so slightly and the cards will tumble. Quickly.
2009-2010: They're right here. The Caps pushed, the team collapsed. One game. If it happens again tonight, we've seen this scenario often enough to know how it all plays out. If Montreal wins, they can start to climb out of this, this whatever this has been for all these years, and make a new name for themselves. It's a new team, it's going to be together for a while. Let them start with something now to make create chemistry and character. They don't need to win the series, but they don't have to collapse again. There is something in between and it's precisely this franchise's inability to live in between that has hurt them for so long.
Let's do this. And let's cheer them on with everything we've got to help make things a little lighter, and make that enormous boulder feel smaller.
Game is at 7pm, it's at home. It's on TSN and RDS and every player that is supposed to be hot is.
Jaro is in. Theo is out. That's too bad. Metro is back. Sergei is also back, where he belongs.
Good luck to our boys. Stay positive in the comments.