Habs Facing a Mental Challenge

Montreal Canadiens Playoff Tickets

For the first time in the 2014 Stanley Cup Playoffs the Montreal Canadiens are down by 2 games in a series.  Not just any series, the Conference Finals, the series that will crown the Conference Champions before the victor moves on to the Stanley Cup Finals. And it will take the same mental fortitude that  enabled an underdog Montreal team to sweep the Tampa Bay Lightning and force Game 7 against a dominant Bruins squad for the Canadiens to advance.

The 2014 edition of the Canadiens is a team that can play hockey.  They have proven as much with an aggressive forecheck that unraveled the Bolts’ defense and an impenetrable goalie that defeated the President’s Trophy winning Boston Bruins.

The Canadiens have four dependable lines that head coach Michel Therrien can roll with confidence.  They have forwards with the ability to power their way to the net and plant themselves there.  They have forced odd man rushes off neutral zone turnovers and can provide man on man defensive coverage when needed.  We have seen it.  Just not in this series.

Yes, against the Boston Bruins the team rallied in front of goaltender Carey Price, who was the seed of confidence that spread through the entire team.  But the team cannot afford to forget that it also cashed in on timely scoring chances that lifted the weight of a game-saving stop off Price’s shoulders, since the majority of the games played have been from a position of strength.  In fact, the Habs played catch-up in only 3 of 11 games going into the Conference Finals, resulting in one win against the Lightning and two losses against the Bruins.

When the TSN panel previewed the series against the Rangers they focused less on the Rangers’ struggles against the Canadiens in recent years than the mental resilience required to move on.   They wondered if, after the will and strength required to defeat the Bruins, the Canadiens would be able to boost themselves up with the same hunger and drive needed to defeat the New York Rangers, a team they barely dislike?

The truth is, they haven’t.

The Habs are down 2 games in a best of seven series against the New York Rangers.  They have lost their star goaltender to an injury for the remainder of the series and they have allowed 10 goals in those 2 games.  The embarrassing assessments on CBC offer little hope the Canadiens can defeat a New York Rangers team that boasts a stellar penalty kill and a goaltender at the very top of his game.  The CBC is wrong.  It’s not just that the Rangers are a good team, though they are, it’s that the Canadiens are missing the mental edge to ensure victory.

The Habs were bound to fall a little flat after riding the emotional high of a vengeful victory over their biggest rivals.  They were unprepared for Game 1 and their half-hearted, flat-footed attempt to navigate the game led to their worst loss of the playoffs.

Game 2 was more representative of the type of drive and determination we have come to expect from the Canadiens in these playoffs.  And this in the wake of  the disheartening announcement by Michel Therrien just hours prior to puck drop that the team would be without Price for the remainder of the series.  The Habs, already aware of their uphill climb after Game 1, rallied, fought and came out the hungrier team on Monday night.  They outplayed, outshot and outskated a embattled Rangers defense in the first period but still came out of it on the wrong side of a 2-1 score.

Hockey is, after all, a game of bounces and no matter how many shots or how much time a team spends in the offensive zone, it’s the number of pucks in the net that matter.  The Habs came out visibly deflated for the 2nd period though they continued to dominate play.  The Habs had half a game to get 2 goals but couldn’t.   They played better than the Rangers but lacked the confidence to finish a play, or take a shot instead of making a pass.  It’s one explanation for their loss despite that the team’s possession numbers from Game 2 were by far their best of the playoffs:

Montreal Canadiens Playoff Tickets

They simply played without that extra stride that defines a hungrier team; and ultimately made the difference between victory and defeat.

Credit is due to the Rangers who have rallied around their teammate Martin St. Louis who lost his mother on the eve of their first elimination game against the Pittsburgh Penguins.  The Blueshirts are still carrying that torch and will not let up until they have a Cup to show for it.

It is now up to the Canadiens to become the hungrier team because they can skate with the Rangers and they can play a tight defensive game when called upon.  They simply need the confidence to execute their game plan without Price or the spoked B in front of them.  They did it against the Tampa Bay Lightning and they can do it again.  It is the difference between a good team and a great one.  And they’ve already proved they’re a great one.

Game 3 is at Madison Square Garden in New York on Thursday.

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