Here’s a tricky problem: how does a team score seven goals, beat a close division rival who’s given them trouble all season, solidify the conference lead, and clinch an absolute guaranteed playoff spot in a single game, and yet do so in a manner that leaves everyone feeling vaguely queasy and dissatisfied at the end? Seems impossible, right? How could anything possibly be disturbing enough to unsettle all those warm fuzzy achievements? Yet our Montreal Canadiens, ingenious creatures that they are, have found a way to do it. Truly, there is nothing, no matter how improbable, that is beyond their capacities.
1. The secret formula for a great win that still feels icky is two periods of absolute dominance followed by a grand finale of abject shittiness. At the end of the second, the Habs were up 7-1, having gotten goals from everyone from Kostitsyn al-Akbar to Kostopolous. Fourteen different Canadiens on the scoresheet, everyone clicking merrily along both at even-strength and on the power play, a whole range of pretty moves from Kovalev, Koivu, and Kostitsyn al-Asghar (it really was a good night for the legion of KO- too bad Komisarek is hurt), and some opportune garbage goals as well. Gerber chased after giving up three, and Emery looking terrible after giving up four more. All good, right? Like a Bruins game or something. And then they came out in the third and sucked. Total, complete, unmitigated suckage. An endless succession of lazy penalties, ugly rebounds, failed clearing attempts, misdirected passes, and just general stupidity that allowed the Senators to come back with four consecutive unanswered goals. There was a moment, with about ten minutes remaining, when I felt absolutely sure they were going to find a way to lose this in the most spectacular on-ice implosion of the season, leaving the Bell Centre nothing but a pile of rubble under a blossoming mushroom cloud of failure. Such were the depths of the suckage.
2. Except, interestingly, for Higgins. I’ve never been persuaded that ‘clutch’-ness is a real phenomenon among hockey players; rather, I prefer to view it as one of hockey’s many metaphors that define the mysterious and unpredictable elements of the game. However, I am persuaded that there is something peculiar about Higgins. He is, for lack of a better word, backwards, the inverse of a normal hockey player. When everything is going well, he can be a total stress-monkey, squeezing his stick so hard it’s a wonder he doesn’t crush it to splinters every shift. In good times, he is the most misfortunate of Habs, king of the crossbar, master of the blown opportunity, a perennial thwackee who endures physical punishment with the dour resignation of Droopy Dog. But somehow, when things suck, Higgins gets better. I have no quantitative evidence for this other than my mid-season research into the Habs’ late game play that found that he scored late goals in losing games far more frequently than any other player, and observations of his superlative skill at 5-on-3 penalty killing (as displayed in this game). It’s not that he flourishes under pressure, exactly; he flourishes under despair. He’s like that pink slime in Ghostbusters II that goes apeshit in the presence of bad feelings. Only with more angst.
3. Personally, I thought Lapierre was remarkably effective on a couple of levels- tenacious on the attack, responsible in his own end, and an excellent sponge for
4. Other gold stars: Hamrlik, who is so consistent, competent, efficient, and intelligent that he’s virtually undervalued on a $5 million contract (hopefully he doesn’t decline too precipitously with advancing age); S. Kostitsyn, who I’m going to start thinking of as mini-Koivu for his playmaking skill and fierce determination, the way I think of his brother as mini-Kovalev for his artistry; and Kostopolous for spooking everyone with the evil eye. Demerit to Ryder, for being a slightly-befuddled looking void all night long.
It’s surreal to have clinched a playoff spot with five games remaining, another indicator of ahbabi’s inexplicable dominance of the conference. All season, even with a successful team, you try to tell yourself not to get too far ahead, not assume too much, not get your hopes up. The hockey gods are capricious beings, right? You never know when they might change their minds. And yet, apparently these Habs have secured the Mandate of Heaven, and now is one of the rare occasions in the sport when you can with absolute surety see the future. We’re going to the postseason, people, not possibly or probably, not we might or could make it. It’s a glorious certainty. Enjoy it.
(Just don't think too much about that third period...)