Sunday, January 02, 2011

Habs in the Noughties

Ten High Points

This December 31st marks the end of the first decade of the new millennium -- the Noughties according to the English, to reflect all the noughts (or zeroes) in the dates.

For the Habs fan, the decade began most inauspiciously. On New year's Day 2001, Canadiens fans were recovering from their Millennium parties while sitting last in the entire NHL after New Year's Eve. The record was 10-23-4-2 and Therrien wasn't bringing any of the usual boost that a new coach sometimes brings. The team was on its way to its worst season since the 1940s.

But there was light for Canadiens fans. Houle was gone and the repairs were beginning in earnest to the havoc he had wreaked over his tenure.

As we stand here 10 years on, it would be fair to say a lot of the damage has been patched. The team has been in the playoffs for 5 of the last 6 seasons. They have been both a conference finalist, a frequent playoff round winner and an Eastern champion. A roster that on a cold January day once sported Aaron Asham, Craig Darby, Chad Kilger, Eric Landry, Juha Lind, Gino Odjick and Patrick Poulin all at the same time has improved. There have been trophies, and trophy finalists and All-Stars (legitimate ones too).

The decade's had its moments. Here are the best ten for me:

10. 2003 Heritage Classic

The original outdoor game, and the re-acquaintance with the alumni game. It was a treat for Habs and Oilers fans alike and set off a trend that the rest of the league would follow. The Habs won, which also helped its aura.

9. Sale to the Molsons
I'm certain that in other lists like the the financial crisis of 2008 would rank as one of the biggest stories of the decade. The Canadiens never faced a true crisis, but might have been bitten had their over-leveraged owner not chosen to sell this asset first from his portfolio. It was a benefit to the team, we'll probably never know exactly how big.

8. 2009 Centennial Game
The Centennial was built up for so long and geared to deliver for a couple of years through ceremony and extra merch possibilities. If nothing else had happened but Patrick Roy skating out onto the ice in his Canadiens uniform and full gear to face shots, I don't think many would have minded. December 4, 2009 was a magical night and even ended with a magical win over the Bruins.

7. Draft Lottery 2005

The Canadiens drafted Carey Price 5th overall in 2005. The Canadiens weren't due the 5th overall pick - more like the usual 18th. The lottery in 2005, following the lockout was a great boon for the Canadiens as they vied for Sidney Crosby (or rather their lottery balls did). I vividly remember sitting there listening to the radio after pick 11 had been drawn. Destiny seemed to be in the cards as the Canadiens repeatedly weren't called. Finally, pick #5, with a tinge of disappointment, but a later recognition of great luck, was granted. The draft which followed shortly after was resumption of hockey talk beyond law and salary, full of trade intrigue and player back-and-forth. it was a high point without a successful pick. With a successful pick, even higher.

6. Mike Cammalleri signing
Would anyone ever sign with the Habs? Rafalski, Hull, Shanahan? All the stars available always seemed to go elsewhere (usually Detroit). For the fan of a team wanting (and now needing) to rebuild via the free agent route, it was a question that constantly nagged. Cammalleri was one of the best forwards available in 2009. Young, proven and certainly a star. The minute I heard he signed withe the team, i thought what a coup. The fact that it precipitated the Maple Leafs to self-destruct later in trade form, obviously only makes it better in retrospect.

5. 2004 Playoff comeback

3-1 down against the strong Bruins. A Kovalev trade that was supposed to help wasn't. The season was heading for the tubes. On a dime it turned. From playoff goat in Game #4 (Souray's obstacle as he wringed his hand in pain), Kovy turned on the jets for the very first time and it was pure magic to watch for 3 games. The fact I was there for Game #6 to take in the euphoria was something I'll not likely forget.

4. Trevor Timmins hiring
In practical terms, this was perhaps the team's biggest turning point. The Habs had never been the worst team for scouting, but they were certainly a bit haphazard. Timmins seemed to change that. Since he's been on board, it's not been uncommon to talk about depth and about a strong farm system. Though the team waits for a superstar to fall from one of his picks, that's something that requires help from the ghosts. Since his hiring the team has been playoff material with homegrown core elements. A definite high point to say that after the late 1990s.

3. 2010 Playoff run
Last year's playoffs were absolutely great. We've come to believe that making the playoffs is a chance to won the Cup. But perhaps after a whipping in 2009 we wondered if were spoiled to expect that ever again. Enter Jaroslav Halak and Martin's new Canadiens. The team threatened to lose to better opponents nearly every night yet battled hard with timely offense and some sensational penalty killing and goaltending

2. Jose Theodore's February, March and April, 2002
This was breaking the hex in a big way. From middling mid-1990s to putrid turn of the century teams, the Habs needed a statement. That statement came in the form of a goaltender who just refused to lose. Theodore's spring of 2002 won him the Vezina and the Hart trophy. it won the Canadiens a playoff berth and a playoff upset round. it won the Habs fans their mojo back.

1. Koivu's comeback
During Theodore's incredible run, Saku Koivu was quietly working out readying himself for a return from his chemotherapy-induced layoff. From weakened and vulnerable Koivu in late fall, he was fully rebuilt in body and mind by April 2002. news of his return was magical enough. The return itself was unforgettable. I'm grateful that I somehow had the presence of mind to buy up some late seaosn tickets that year in hope of attending, as we scored a winning ticket to attend the game. A whole stadium of people rarely rains down their full affection in simultaneous fashion on a single person. on this night, they did. Koivu stood there and soaked it in. He would take that affection and turn it into inspired play over the next weeks. He was incredible in playoff action. His legend was solidified.

Honourable mention: Conference Champion's Run, 2008
Like the Conference Championship for the team, I don't give this the credit it deserves. If you consider for a moment that the team plays 6 months of hockey for points in the standings and then 2 weeks vs. the same team in the playoffs, it's stunning there aren't any banners for President's trophies and now that the Conference is 15-teams large, Conference Championships. The run to win was as good as any playoff series win, without the gratification that survival provides. Carey price was excellent, and for those with long memories - Kovalev was outstanding.

Blogs were less prevalent in 2001, this one wasn't conceived, i can assure you. But I did find one amateur account of the beginning of the decade. It's fun read.

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