Daily Hab-it: Horseshoes and hand grenades
Boston Bruins players including defenseman Zdeno Chara, face showing, celebrate around goalie Tim Thomas after they defeated the Tampa Bay Lightning in Game 7 of an NHL hockey Stanley Cup playoffs Eastern Conference final series in Boston, Friday, May 27, 2011. The Bruins won 1-0. (AP Photo/Elise Amendola)
By Arpon Basu
Published Saturday, May 28, 2011 3:00AM EDT
I don't know how many times I've heard it over the past few weeks.
As Canadiens fans watched the Boston Bruins steamroll the Philadelphia Flyers to reach the Conference Final, the same refrain was repeated everywhere over and over again.
Just one goal.
One bounce. One funky ricochet off a stanchion. One deflection off a defenceman's skate in the crease. One lapse in concentration by their opponents, and this could have been the Canadiens.
In the coming days, with the Bruins packing their bags to go to Vancouver to face the Canucks in their first Stanley Cup Final in 21 years, the "What if?" factor in Montreal will be ramped up higher than ever before.
But while this feeling of blissful what-if-ness can be comforting, it is not based in reality.
Being close guarantees nothing
Still, it is so tempting to feel that way after losing three of four games in overtime.
Yes, the Canadiens came within a goal of advancing to the second round, but that does not necessarily mean they could have replicated what the Bruins have done here.
Saying that, in a backhanded sort of way, diminishes how a Bruins team best identified by blowing a 3-0 series lead and a 3-0 Game 7 lead last season grew and matured from that experience to become the team that will now play for the Stanley Cup.
A team that fell behind two games to none on home ice against its kryptonite and found a way to overcome that peculiar psychosis and win four of the next five games, with three of them coming in the most mentally trying of circumstances.
What the Bruins accomplished against the Canadiens was not easy, and it is serving them well as they continue to play while 28 other teams prepare for the draft.
For instance, so much has been made of the Bruins horrendous 5-for-61 power play. Except the natural counterpoint to that has been totally ignored, that the Bruins have scored 48 even strength goals (one at 4-on-4) in 18 games for a per game average of 2.67, way higher than their regular season average of 2.17.
Among the eight teams that advanced past the first round Detroit is closest at 2.36, which is an extremely wide gap.
The Bruins have depth at forward, more depth on defence than I gave them credit for, an excellent goaltender who has also proven me wrong by showing a sense of occasion, and a level of resiliency that what was once its biggest weakness and is now its biggest strength.
For the Canadiens to have come within inches of beating a team like that was impressive, but it is nowhere near being a guarantee that they could have done the same thing.
A familiar position
Montreal fans, however, have been in this position before.
The Canadiens made the playoffs six times between 2002 and 2010, and over that span they were eliminated by the Cup winner twice (Tampa Bay, second round in '04, and Carolina, first round in '06) and by the Cup runner up twice (Carolina, second round in '02, and Philadelphia, third round in '10).
So this year marks the fifth time in seven post-season appearances over nine years that the Canadiens were knocked out of the spring dance by the Eastern Conference champion.
Except that recent playoff history provides ample reason to avoid believing that playing Boston so tough in the first round says anything about how good the Canadiens will be next season.
In the year following the four previous times Montreal was eliminated by a Cup finalist, the Canadiens missed the playoffs twice, finished seventh in the conference once, and finished sixth this season.
Having said all that, it's alright to think of what might have been as you watch the Bruins take on the Canucks. It's only natural.
Losing three overtime games in a single series is a tough pill to swallow because it is definitive proof of how competitive the Canadiens were against a team that will battle for sport's greatest trophy.
But extrapolating that reality of playing one great series into an automatic trip to the Stanley Cup final if a bounce had gone the Canadiens way is pushing it way too far.
And if Canadiens management has any of those thoughts creeping into their minds they should forget them immediately and focus instead on the formidable task of assembling a team that can at least open the playoffs at home next season.
Should they succeed in doing only that, it would be for just the second time in 20 years.