– There are not too many NHL markets where a coach can take an eighth-seeded team to within three wins of a trip to the Stanley Cup Final one year, and have a city full of critics the very next one.
But Montreal is not your typical hockey market; and Canadiens fans are not your typical hockey fans.
Hence, this is the fate – or burden – of Montreal coach Jacques Martin, who has led his team back to the playoffs in spite of facing a litany of reasons why it has no business there at all.
The Canadiens are far from being the only NHL team that had to deal with injuries to key players this season, but the makeup of the team is such that it was perhaps one of the ones that was the most ill prepared to handle such adversity.
The Canadiens lost their top defenseman, Andrei Markov
, in November, just seven games into his comeback from reconstructive surgery on a right knee that he re-injured in a collision with Carolina's Eric Staal
. Then the Canadiens lost their top shutdown defenseman, Josh Gorges
, right around Christmas, also to reconstructive knee surgery.
General Manager Pierre Gauthier patched those holes by acquiring James Wisniewski
, Brent Sopel
and Paul Mara
in trades to shore up the blue line, but a Canadiens team that was not necessarily all that strong to begin with was left severely weakened by the losses.
In early March another key piece of the team's puzzle was lost when forward Max Pacioretty
went down with a broken vertebra in his neck and a concussion at a time when he had emerged as Montreal's top offensive threat.
, Mike Cammalleri
and key role player Mathieu Darche
also missed significant time with injuries, while top center Scott Gomez
has been mired in the worst season of his career.
Yet, with all these valid reasons to fail, the Canadiens still finished the regular season with a better record than last year.
A big reason for that has been the framework Martin provides for his team, one where every player – from the first-line sniper to the fourth-line grinder – is asked to respect a system that emphasizes team play.
"I think his whole M.O. is to stick to the system," defenseman Hal Gill
said of his coach. "He uses the word 'process' a lot, and it is a process. We have to stick to what we know works."
While the Canadiens played giant-killers last spring, both the Washington Capitals
and Pittsburgh Penguins
were perplexed by how they felt they were dominating the play, yet were coming out on the losing end.
Both teams insisted throughout their respective seven-game losses that if they continued doing the same things, if they continued peppering then-goalie Jaroslav Halak
with shots, they would eventually prevail.
Except it never worked out that way.
"I don't think it's a secret you need good goaltending in this League to have any success," Gill said. "We had good goaltending, but we also did things well."
Coming off that postseason success, expectations were raised in Montreal. So, when the team hit a rough patch like the one in late March where the Canadiens didn't score a goal in three-straight games, it was Martin and his defense-first system that came under attack from pundits and fans on radio call-in shows.
"The system's always there, it's just that we weren't applying it and that falls on us," Darche said. "I know a lot of people were hard on the coaching staff and the system and all that, but the bottom line is we've shown we have success when we play a certain way. When we lose and we struggle, it's because we get away from that."
Heading into this year's playoffs, Martin once again has a dominant goalie in Carey Price
and many of the same pieces he had at his disposal a year ago, buttressed by the addition of a seasoned P.K. Subban
who has emerged as his most important defenseman.
Yet, the pressure will be on Martin to coax players like Gomez, Cammalleri, captain Brian Gionta
and center Tomas Plekanec
to produce offensively, something none of them have done with any consistency this season.
And Martin will also need to show an ability to adjust, because opposing coaches now have a wealth of material to draw upon in an attempt to find weaknesses in his vaunted system and exploit those discoveries this time around.
How well Martin does so will go a long way in determining how deep this Canadiens team goes in the playoffs, and how convincingly they can prove that last season was no fluke.