BROSSARD – The Canadiens’ locker clean out day is never an easy one and the earlier it happens, the harder it is for the players to swallow.
At the beginning of the season, the Habs had April 9 circled on their calendars as the day they’d be coming to the rink to do some pre-scouting on their first-round opponents. Instead, the team was in Brossard on Monday packing up their gear and saying their final goodbyes before heading home for the summer – if not longer.
Having made it to the postseason in each of his previous nine seasons in the league, sitting on the outside looking in come springtime isn’t something Habs captain Brian Gionta is interested in getting used to.
“It’s definitely not fun and today is a hard day, for sure. You’re used to coming in on a day like this and preparing for your opponent in the first round and trying to figure out ways you’re going to make it back to the Stanley Cup,” explained Gionta, who won the Cup with the Devils in his sophomore season in 2003. “It’s definitely something I haven’t gone through and it’s even tougher with the injury, not being able to help out down the stretch.”
Still three weeks shy of completing his four month rehab stint following bicep surgery, Gionta has spent the second half of the year leading from the sidelines, but the captain was far from alone in the Habs' clinic this season. Battling through the team’s league-leading 440 man games lost to injury this season took its toll on the Canadiens, but it also gave a few leaders-in-training a chance to step up and gain some valuable experience.
“You have guys like Travis Moen and Josh Gorges, Carey [Price] is stepping into a leadership role, young guys like [Max] Pacioretty and [David] Desharnais excelled this year and Erik Cole has been a great addition and a great leader for us,” shared Gionta, who watched the final 40 games of the campaign from the press box. “The pieces are there; it’s just a matter of performing and trying to stay healthy.
“I don’t think it’s a secret that nobody’s happy with how things went this year. When we came into camp our expectations were to make the playoffs and compete for a Stanley Cup. Obviously, this is the polar opposite of that and it was definitely tough to deal with,” he added. “But we have a lot of great pieces here and we dealt with a lot of things this year but I think everyone is optimistic that we’re not that far off even though our points and our [position in the] standings don’t show that.”
Despite the team’s last place finish in the Eastern Conference, the Canadiens were hardly blown out throughout the campaign. Looking back on a season where 37 of their 82 games were decided by a single goal, P.K. Subban didn’t need a calculator to realize how different his spring could have been if the team had been able to pick up more of the 36 points they left on the table in those one-goal games.
“As a team, obviously we’re disappointed we’re not in the postseason,” admitted P.K. Subban, who led the Habs in ice time in 2011-12, averaging 24:18 per game. “I’ve only played two years, but the last two years we’ve been in the playoffs. It’s upsetting but at the same time, if a couple games go the other way, I think we’d be on the other side looking at it and getting ready for the first round right now.”
Forced to watch the playoffs from the comfort of home for the first time since arriving in Montreal in 2007, Josh Gorges will use the past season’s disappointments as a source of motivation this summer. Armed with a six-year deal heading into the summer, the 27-year-old blue-liner is confident the result of the 2011-12 season isn’t something his team will be repeating in the near future.
“I really do believe that we’re close. I don’t think we’re far off from being a team that gets into the playoffs and when we’re healthy we’re a different team,” shared the assistant captain. “We’ve had a lot injuries to key players who log a lot of minutes and play a big role on this team. We’re right there.
“We need to find that urgency on a nightly basis where we understand that every game and every shift is potentially the difference in making the playoffs or not,” he stressed. "I think if we can get to that level and we stay healthy, we’ll be in the mix. People are going to have their opinions and their expectations of us but those opinions don’t matter; all that matters is what we believe in this room and what the guys are willing to put in and do together.”
The bitter taste left after ending the season earlier than expected isn’t one the Habs are accustomed to. But with an extra-long offseason ahead, they’ll be using those feelings as motivation to make sure that next year they’re not cleaning out their stalls until the summer is already well underway.Shauna Denis is a writer for canadiens.com. SEE ALSOWords from the roomCurtain call Carey Price named the 2011-2012 Molson Cup Player of the Year