Despite their unexpected run to the Eastern Conference finals last spring, the Montreal Canadiens
spent the summer hearing the jabs.
The common wisdom in hockey circles is that goalie Jaroslav Halak
was solely responsible for what the eight-seeded Canadiens were able to accomplish last spring, knocking off the President's Trophy-winning Washington Capitals
and the defending Stanley Cup champion Pittsburgh Penguins
in the first two rounds before losing to Philadelphia.
With Halak now in St. Louis, not much is expected of the Canadiens -- except, that is, by the Canadiens themselves.
"We know we can do what we did last year, and even better," winger Maxim Lapierre
said as the Canadiens began training camp. "We said this morning that it was a good run last year, but it wasn't enough. The main goal is to win the Stanley Cup and we lost in the semifinal. That's not good enough and we have to do better."
A team that returns largely intact was back on the ice Saturday for the first time since being eliminated in Game 5 by the Flyers – and they are eager to prove last spring's run was not simply a case of riding a hot goalie.
"We all know that Jaro was great, he was probably one of the biggest reasons we went so far," center Tomas Plekanec
told NHL.com. "If he didn't play the way he did, we wouldn't be there, that's for sure. But if you look at the first series against Washington, we did such a good job defensively. Yes, he stopped the pucks and made unbelievable saves, but we blocked so many shots, we killed so many penalties and they had the kind of players on the power play that can kill you at any time. We did a hell of a job."
One year after a total roster overhaul, the Canadiens arrive in training camp this fall with the added benefit of familiarity – something they hope will allow them to pick up where they left off last spring.
Aside from Halak, only defensemen Marc-Andre Bergeron
and Paul Mara
and forwards Glen Metropolit
, Dominic Moore
and Sergei Kostitsyn
are gone. The new faces include forwards Lars Eller
, Dustin Boyd
and Jeff Halpern
, plus defenseman Alexandre Picard. The Canadiens will also get a full season from rookie defenseman P.K. Subban
, who showed during the playoffs that he's ready for a full-time NHL job.
So the core group from last season's magical playoff ride is basically untouched, largely because Gauthier was able to lock up Plekanec to a six-year, $30 million contract nine days before he was set to hit the free-agent market.
After a career year offensively with 70 points in 82 games, Plekanec was criticized for a lack of production in the playoffs – he had 11 points in 19 games. It was criticism that he and the team feel is unfair considering Plekanec was charged with blanketing Alex Ovechkin
in the first round and Sidney Crosby
in the second.
"There's nothing I can do about that, I think I did my job very well," Plekanec said of the critics. "My role is to be a two-way player, and people who say I need to get points need to realize I'm the guy who plays on both sides of the ice."
With Halak gone, the pressure will be on Carey Price
to regain the form that made the big, athletic goalie the No. 5 pick in the 2005 Entry Draft. Price began his professional career like few others before him ever have, winning leading Montreal's AHL affiliate to the 2007 Calder Cup and making the NHL All-Rookie team in 2007-08.
"I think (Halak) did really well, he was magic for us. But I think the team was good too. We scored big goals when it was time to score big goals, and we know that Carey Price
will do the same thing for us this year." -- Maxim Lapierre
But Price, 23, has struggled ever since being voted to start the 2009 All-Star Game in Montreal, and a city full of fans still angered over the Halak trade are not likely to give him much slack.
However, the Canadiens players have pledged their support behind Price, with several noting what a good presence he was in the dressing room while he sat on the bench in favor of Halak over the second half of last season and in the playoffs.
"I think (Halak) did really well, he was magic for us," Lapierre said. "But I think the team was good too. We scored big goals when it was time to score big goals, and we know that Carey Price
will do the same thing for us this year."
So while the hockey world expects very little from a team that was among the final four in last year's playoffs, a team that returns basically intact, it is clear the Canadiens have every intention of proving the skeptics wrong.
"We had a good result, but we didn't achieve what we wanted," Plekanec said. "We went far, and no one expected us to go that far, but we wanted to go all the way -- and we were close. At the end of the day, you're unhappy with the result and you want to achieve it the next year."