What the Puck: Dark day for Canadiens fans as playoff hopes dwindle

What the Puck: Dark day for Canadiens fans as playoff hopes dwindle
You can say whatever you want. You can talk about how exciting the games were this year, how the Habs have great prospects, how they were so much better than last season’s team.

You can say it, but I’m tired of hearing it. The players did show real character this season. I loved Carey Price’s heartfelt words after that soul-destroying loss to the Capitals Thursday night in Washington.

“It’s a great show of character along this last stretch,” said a crestfallen Price. “We’ve really shown our true colours.”

Montreal Canadiens goaltender Carey Price blocks a shot by the Washington Capitals during the second period in Washington on Thursday, April 4, 2019. The Capitals won 2-1. Susan Walsh / AP

They did. Those wins against Winnipeg and Tampa Bay were huge and that’s why, leading up to this latest must-win game Thursday, there was a sense of euphoria in the city, that anything was possible. This squad did show real character down the stretch and all season. Players such as Brendan Gallagher, Phillip Danault, Tomas Tatar, Max Domi, Jeff Petry and so many others gave their heart and soul every game.

But it wasn’t enough. They were punching above their weight. And the loss to the Caps simply proved what some of us already knew: Character can only bring you so far, despite of what GM Marc Bergevin said. When the going gets tough late in the season and during the playoffs, the bigger and better team wins.

One of the richer ironies of the Bergevin era is that this tough-guy grinder, journeyman defenceman-turned-GM has built a team that’s too small — just like almost every other Habs team since 1993. Did you see Brooks Orpik annihilate everything that moved on the ice Thursday? Did you see Tom Wilson and Alex Ovechkin slam Gally one after the other?

The Canadiens don’t need big fourth-liners who can’t play, they need big players who bring something to the ice. They need better players, as in Ovechkin, Evgeny Kuznetsov, Nicklas Backstrom etc. I’ll come back to one of my obsessions: Why is it that the Canadiens have not had a bona fide star forward in 26 years? Someone who ends up in the top 10 of the NHL scoring charts.

This team is not where it needs to be and there is no proof that it’s on its way there. Bergevin made some good moves last summer, bringing in Domi and Tatar. The Canadiens are 23 points ahead of their 2017-18 total and the team deserves praise for that.

But why are we drawing comparisons to one of the worst seasons in Canadiens history? What astonishes me is that the team’s management has succeeded in lulling us into believing that not making the playoffs can be considered a successful season. That’s exactly what Bergevin said on Monday: “Overall, I think we had a good season.”

It’s delusional thinking. Sorry to say, but there’s zero proof next year will be better. It will take a miracle to make the playoffs. If the Columbus Blue Jackets win tonight in New York against the sad-sack Rangers, it’s all over for the Habs. And if that’s the case, they will have missed the playoffs three of the last four seasons.

Montreal Canadiens’ Jesperi Kotkaniemi tries to knock the puck away from Columbus Blue Jackets’ Josh Anderson during the second period on March 28, 2019, in Columbus, Ohio. Jay LaPrete / AP

And who knows if they’ll make the playoffs next year. Maybe the most distressing thing I see is how this team mismanages its talent. The Jonathan Drouin situation is a total spit-show. He is the team’s highest-paid forward and was billed as the first homegrown (non-goalie) star in decades. He has been in a mighty funk for months. He has points in only two of his last 25 games. So what does the old-school team of Bergevin and head coach Claude Julien do? They throw him on the third line, where he is guaranteed to remain in a scoring funk. Instead of dealing with the problem, they’re destroying his confidence.

And how do you like their development of Jesperi Kotkaniemi? They bench him a few games with the coach repeatedly saying the rookie is tired, which KotkaKid denies. Then Julien moves him to the left wing on the fourth line, further confusing him.

The Canadiens aren’t rebuilding, possibly because they don’t want to fall into the Edmonton Oilers rebuilding trap. But if that’s the case, they should be competing and spending the millions in salary cap space they haven’t used for the past two seasons.

Bob Dylan, as he so often did, put it best all those years ago: “Failure’s no success at all.” So the Habs should pray for a miracle, but be ready to miss the playoffs and be big enough to admit that it’s a failure.
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