MONTREAL — I’m not sure Marc Bergevin could’ve called on a better person to address his Montreal Canadiens at this critical juncture of their quest for the Stanley Cup, as they await a semifinal opponent and attempt to avoid the same issue the team they just beat ran up against.
Enter Bob Gainey, one of Bergevin’s predecessors as Canadiens general manager, a man of few words but one of even fewer words wasted. A legendary player of the game who was once described as “technically the most complete in the world” by Russian coaching guru Viktor Tikhonov and who was once hoisted up by some of the greatest players of all time for his role on one of the greatest championship teams of all time in 1979. He has faced every situation imaginable, including the one the Canadiens are in right now, and you can bet that every player in that room devoured every word he used to inspire them and keep them in the headspace they need to be in at this moment.
It’s a bigger challenge than anyone can imagine. You’d think a team eight wins away from a Cup could shock itself back into rhythm immediately, but no amount of preparation can guarantee that.
I spoke to former Canadien Nate Thompson about how he and his current Winnipeg Jets teammates weren’t able to overcome this after sweeping the Edmonton Oilers in the first round of this year’s playoffs. I asked if they could’ve approached their layoff — while the Canadiens were in the process of coming back and beating the Toronto Maple Leafs in seven games — any differently, and his answer perfectly encapsulated why they couldn’t and why any team in a similar position would have been challenged to.
“Not sure what you can do, to be honest,” Thompson said via text. “You can practise all you want, but the break just takes the rhythm out of playing games and the feel of the playoffs. You get taken out of the mindset of having every second night as a game night and being in that routine.”
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It’s not as if any player purposely disengages. They are often described as creatures of habit, and that’s not a notion that’s overblown.
To have routines broken for eight days, as the Jets did between dispatching the Oilers and facing the Canadiens, is a mental challenge that can’t just be overcome by will.
If the Vegas Golden Knights beat the Colorado Avalanche on Thursday, that would mean a Saturday start for the Canadiens against them in Round 3 — making it only four days off between games. You’d think the Canadiens might prefer the Avalanche force a seventh game, for both teams to travel once more and play six extra periods on top of the two games, but Thompson is probably not alone in thinking it would be better off for them to just get back to playing as soon as possible.
He knows how well the Canadiens played to beat his Jets, how they got complete buy-in and execution from the entire team, and he knows the value in keeping that going.
So does Bergevin, hence Gainey’s arrival Wednesday.
“We were fortunate enough to have Mr. Bob Gainey speak to us about exactly that,” said Brendan Gallagher. “You talk about experience, there’s not a lot of organizations that can fall on alumni with the amount of experience that this one can, and we were fortunate to have one in the building today. And he was able speak to us on some things that he went through in his career and some things he’s seen, and it was exactly that — how important it is going to be to start Game 1 and really implement our style of play.
“It was a passionate speech, it was nice to have him here, and those are the things we’re going to be doing this week to make sure you balance rest, but you also stay mentally and physically sharp. We don’t want our game to fall off from where it was from when we finished the series. So, it’s something that we’ve talked about and something that we’re going to make sure is a key focus here as we prepare for Game 1.”
We’d imagine the guy they invented the Selke Trophy for might have also had a few words of praise for the defensive commitment that led the Canadiens down this path. Perhaps Gainey cited what happened in 1976, when his Canadiens shut down the NHL’s best offence — a Philadelphia Flyers team that had averaged over four goals per game in both the regular season and playoffs, and was chasing its third consecutive Stanley Cup — and Gary Dornhoefer said, “They’ve checked us so closely that you can tell what brand of deodorant they’re using.”
I would think the Jets feel similarly right about now.
Dominique Ducharme provides updates on Jeff Petry and Jake Evans
The Montreal coach reiterated Wednesday thatthe Canadiens are hoping Jeff Petry will only be out short-term after missing Game 4 of the Winnipeg series with a hand injury.
“Jeff, like we said after the game, we think he’s going to be back early in the series,” said Ducharme of his top-scoring defenceman this season. “We don’t know if it’s going to be Game 1, 2 or 3. We’re hoping for the best. So, there’s no update now, because it doesn’t change for him. He needs a few days. So, when game-time comes, if he’s not in, we feel he’s going to be pretty close.”
As for Jake Evans, who suffered a concussion on the Game 1 charge that saw top Jets forward Mark Scheifele suspended four games, Ducharme said there’s hope he could be back in this coming round.
“Jake is doing even better today,” Ducharme said. “He went to our gym yesterday and worked out, he’s progressing well. Can he join us in this series? It’s possible. At what point? Too difficult to say today.
“For an injury like that, it’s more important for the person than the player. Jake being 100 per cent is the most important thing.”
That’s especially true given this was Evans’ third documented concussion since 2018.
Artturi Lehkonen earns high praise from executive
Evans went down when he was playing the best hockey of his career and as well, if not better, than most Canadiens forwards. He was the most-used player up front in the game he got hurt in.
And yet, if he were somehow available for Game 1 of the next series, we can’t think of a way he’d get back into the lineup immediately.
Part of that is because everyone’s game has dramatically risen since Evans went down, and another big part of it is Artturi Lehkonen returning from a concussion suffered in Game 3 against Toronto and filling Evans’ skates so admirably.
“He just played the best games of his career,” said an Eastern Conference executive we spoke to after Game 4, which saw Lehkonen score for a second consecutive contest. “I’ve watched Lehkonen a ton over the years, and I’ve always liked the way he plays. Great forechecker, great backchecker. He tightens up a bit in the scoring areas, but he does everything the right way and has never bailed on making a play — even with someone lining him up in the crosshairs.”
I’d say the same of Evans, who has a bit more offensive poise to him.
If the Canadiens need to turn to him after a tough loss or because someone else goes down to injury, he’ll be able to provide exactly what he provided before he got hurt, if he’s completely recovered and comfortable enough to come back in.
But if even if Evans is healthy and can’t immediately reclaim his spot, it only highlights what’s so good about these Canadiens. Their depth and balance have brought them this far, and Ducharme has said over and over again that he understands how crucial that is to their success.
Vibe check in Montreal
I’m 38 years old and have lived in this city my entire life. It is everything visitors say of it — a beautiful metropolis, a unique and vibrant place with a mostly harmonious, multi-cultured society — and it exactly what you expect it to be when the Canadiens are doing well.
There’s just an extra pop to it, but this is even more apparent now given everything we’ve been through since COVID-19 hit in March of 2020. We were locked down and under curfew from January through most of May, and we’re now on the cusp of moving from orange zones to yellow and green.
On Wednesday, the Montreal Gazette reported 77 per cent of eligible Quebecers had already received their first vaccine — a higher rate than any single state in the U.S. — and that Montreal was down to just 60 daily cases of the novel coronavirus. If that’s not a cause for celebration, I don’t know what is.
What the Canadiens are doing is bringing the elation to another level. I feel it everywhere I go, in every interaction I have with even the most casual observers.
A lot of people have asked me what it was like to have 2,500 fans at the Bell Centre over the last three games, and I described the first experience as an emotional one in just thinking about what it represented in terms of hope of soon emerging from this wretched pandemic.
But I can’t describe in words how incredible the atmosphere has been in the building. I’m not sure 2,500 would sound as loud anywhere else.
I know what it means to the players. Gallagher said Wednesday that it gave them a huge lift and was a big reason they won their last three games at the Bell Centre.
But I also think about what it means to their partners.
And think about the ones among them who came to Montreal from other cities in the off-season and knew they’d have to wait for the real benefits of being a part of the Canadiens family and the city to be realized.
Can you imagine how special this experience has been for those people?
They spent all year basically by themselves, tested twice per week, never permitted to be with each other and often separated from the players, who took three extended road trips to Western Canada, and their first glimpse of what it’s like when the Canadiens are doing well is coming with the team doing better than it has in seven years.
The vibe they’re experiencing is absolutely electric, and the voltage is only going to rise as we move forward.