When you’ve followed a team avidly for many years there are certain things that stick out in your mind. Mostly it is the remembrances of your favourite players and the special moments they have provided, mental snapshots that you can summon in your mind at will. It is also about events, happenings that you celebrated and those that you have tried to forget.
As a fan of the Montreal Canadiens the memories for most can be recalled by simply just reading off the years, whether it be 1993 or 1971, 1986 or 1966, 1979 or 1956, and on and on.
And while the years in which the team won the Stanley Cup are undoubtedly the most special there are also certain years that retain that magic even if the Habs didn’t raise the Cup at the season’s conclusion.
For me 1983-84 was such a season. Midway through that season the Montreal Canadiens officially hit rock bottom. Five seasons removed from their last Stanley Cup, the Habs had spent the intervening years slowly coming back down to earth. Regular season success had been met with playoff disappointment and three consecutive first round defeats, each progressively worse than the previous spring. Unfortunately, 1984 saw the Habs regular season dominance come to a quick end, and Montreal tumbled down the standings.
Brought in from the team’s glory years were general manager Serge Savard and head coach Jacques Lemaire. Along with the change in management came a change in philosophy, as the Canadiens morphed into a team that played to its defensive strengths.
Finishing the season with 5 more losses than wins, the Habs with their worst record in 25 years, barely squeezed into the playoffs. Matched against the Boston Bruins in the first round, a team that had finished 29 points ahead of them during the season, the Habs shockingly swept the Bruins straight out of the playoffs.
Next up were the Quebec Nordiques in the Adams Division finals, a rematch of two years before when Quebec had shocked the Habs and forever altered the “Battle of Quebec.” However, it was this series that would forever define it. Arguably, the most exciting series of the decade involving the Canadiens, the match up between the two brought a high level of hockey and a depth of hatred that culminated in game six at the Montreal Forum.
Game six remains for me one of the greatest games in Habs history. And while many remember the brawls, I remember the third period and the Canadiens comeback against a Nordiques 2-0 lead.
I remember Steve Shutt scoring two goals that brought back memories of years before. I remember Larry Robinson taking control of the game and standing on the ice unchallenged and unbowed. I remember a young player from Sweden named Mats Naslund lifting the team on his small shoulders. I remember Chris Nilan shouting encouragement from the bench. I remember a rookie goaltender named Steve Penney shutting down the Nordiques best and I remember Bob Gainey, the veteran, and Guy Carbonneau, the heir apparent combining to play a two way game unmatched throughout the league.
But what I remember the most is the noise that night in the Forum. It was the sound of celebration, the sound of a sad and cruel past being exorcised, the sound of future possibilities, the smell of a spring full of potential and expectations in full bloom. The feeling of hope, from both a team and its fans that an opportunity once deemed remote is now within reach.
Sitting here during the interregnum between the end of the regular season and the beginning of the playoffs on Thursday, one can’t help but reflect on the recently finished season, a year that will go down as the most memorable in recent Canadiens history.
And while we all wait impatiently for the playoffs to start, I have spent the past few days basking in the glow of the Habs 104 point, first place in the Eastern Conference season. It was a performance predicted by no one with an ending still unwritten and unknown.
In looking back at the season it’s tough to pinpoint a single turning point, a single highlight, a single moment. Instead we are left with an abundance of memories, each of which represented its own signpost, providing a reason to believe and above all a foundation of what was to come.
By definition a magical season is comprised of the games that provided hope, a wealth of games that allow us to dream what was once considered impossible, games that catapulted the Canadiens to the status they enjoy at this moment.
But how can you put into mere words …?
Kovalev’s sustained excellence, Komisarek’s physicality, Price’s dominance, the Kostitsyn’s emergence, Plekanec’s brilliance, Markov’s steadiness, Hamrlik’s presence, Koivu’s leadership, Higgins’ tenacity, Kostopoulous’ toughness, Bouillon’s steadiness, Gorges coming out, Lapierre’s feistiness, Streit’s versatility, Dandenault’s perseverance, Begin’s grit, O’Byrne’s ascendancy, Smolinski’s resolve, Latendresse’s robustness, Ryder’s struggles, the departure of Huet, and the evolution of Guy Carbonneau as head coach.
Or maybe it is the comeback against the Rangers, the superiority over the Devils, the dominance over the Bruins, and the supremacy over both the Flyers and the Sabres.
Thursday night the Canadiens open game one of the Eastern Conference Quarter Finals against the Bruins at the Bell Centre. To give you an idea of how much this Montreal team has achieved, Thursday night marks the first time that the Canadiens have opened a playoff series at home, since the first game of the 1993 Stanley Cup finals against the Los Angeles Kings.
For the first time in a long time, the Canadiens are opening the playoffs full of possibilities. And no matter what happens from here on in that’s reason enough to celebrate.
That is until the opening puck drops on Thursday night.